Fifty other civilians, including 11 children, were rescued on Friday from the tunnels beneath a besieged steelworks in Mariupol, where Ukrainian militants are making their last stand to prevent Moscow’s full takeover of the strategic port city.
The Russian military said on Friday that 11 children were among 50 civilians evacuated from the Azovstal Steel Plant and handed over to representatives of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk confirmed that 50 “women, children and the elderly” had managed to evacuate the sprawling complex, and she and Russia said evacuation efforts were continuing on Saturday. The new evacuees were in addition to around 500 civilians who have been evacuated from the plant and city in recent days, according to the UN.
The battle for the last Ukrainian fortress in a ruined city by the Russian onslaught seemed increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to end the battle for Mariupol so that he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time Victory Day on Mondaythe biggest patriotic holiday in the Russian calendar.
As the holiday commemorating the Soviet Union’s World War II victory over Nazi Germany drew near, cities across Ukraine braced for an expected surge in Russian attacks, and officials urged residents to heed air raid warnings.
“These symbolic dates are like red to a bull for the Russian aggressor,” said Ukraine’s First Deputy Interior Minister Yevhen Yenin. “While the entire civilized world commemorates the victims of terrible wars on these days, the Russian Federation wants parades and prepares to dance over bones in Mariupol.”
Around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, according to Russia’s latest estimate, are entrenched in the vast labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal Steelworks, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukrainian officials said ahead of Friday’s evacuations that some hundreds of civilians were also trapped there and fears for their safety have increased as fighting has intensified in recent days.
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, is in command Troops of the Azov regiment inside the factory, desperately asked for the fighters to be spared too. She said they would be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war but would never surrender to Russia because that would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture and death.”
If nothing is done to save her husband and his men, they will “see it to the end without surrender,” she told The Associated Press on Friday.
UN officials have been tight-lipped about the evacuation effort, but it seemed likely that the last evacuees would be taken to Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian-controlled town about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, where others who had fled the port city were brought.
Some of the plant’s earlier evacuees spoke to the AP about the horrors to be surrounded by death in the moldy underground bunker with little food and water, poor medical care and dwindling hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“People are literally rotting like our jackets,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled their bunker with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others, where 30 others were left behind. “They urgently need our help. We have to get them out.”
Fighters defending the plant said on Telegram on Friday that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the plant’s premises. They said the car drove toward civilians when it was hit by shells, killing one soldier and injuring six.
Moscow did not immediately recognize renewed fighting there on Friday.
Russia took control of Mariupol alongside the steel mill after being bombed for two months. Before Victory Day, community workers and volunteers cleaned up the remains of the city, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000 but is home to perhaps 100,000 civilians little food, water, electricity or heat. Bulldozers shoveled up debris and people swept the streets against a backdrop of hollowed-out buildings while workers repaired a model warship and Russian flags were raised.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port. It would also allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free some of its troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass, the eastern industrial region the Kremlin says is now its main target. Its conquest also has symbolic value, since the city was the scene of some of the worst sufferings of war and a surprisingly fierce resistance.
Asked whether Russia will soon take full control of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything like that.”
“It’s already devastated,” he said at a meeting at London think-tank Chatham House. He also said he remains open to negotiations with Russia but reiterated that Moscow must withdraw its forces.
“We don’t see the end of the war yet,” he said, urging Russia to allow Ukrainian troops there safe passage from the Mariupol steelworks.
As they pounded the work, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks after a devastating war that killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country and leveled large swathes of cities.
Ukrainian officials warned residents to be vigilant and heed airstrike warnings, saying the risk of massive shelling had increased with Victory Day approaching. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said authorities would step up street patrols in the capital. A curfew also came into effect in Ukraine’s southern Odessa region, which was the target of two rocket attacks on Friday.
Ukraine’s military general staff said on Friday that its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbass region and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions thereafter his failed attempt to capture Kyiv. Russia did not immediately acknowledge these losses.
Britain’s MoD said Russia may struggle to implement its plan in Donbass, partly because it is deadlocked at the Mariupol plant, where fighting has “resulted in personnel, equipment and ammunition costs for Russia”.
The Ukrainian army also said it had made advances in the northeastern Kharkiv region, retaking five villages and part of a sixth. Meanwhile, Russian shelling in Lyman, a town in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on Friday reported one person dead and three others wounded.
For other developments:
– A Ukrainian army brigade said it used an American Switchblade “suicide” drone against Russian forces in what is likely Ukraine’s first documented combat use of such a weapon.
– The Ukrainian governor of East Luhansk region said residents of the city of Kreminna were being terrorized by Russian troops attempting to cross the Seversky Donets river. Serhiy Haidai accused Russian troops of tapping phones and “forced disappearance of Ukrainian patriots”. His statements could not be verified immediately.
– Haidia also said more than 15,000 people are staying in Severodonetsk, a city in the Luhansk region considered a key Russian target. He said three people were evacuated from Severodonetsk on Friday and that he believes most residents want to stay even though “entire blocks are on fire.”
– The small village of Nekhoteevk in Russia’s southern Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, was evacuated from Ukrainian territory on Friday because of shelling, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. His claims could not be immediately verified.
– Russian authorities reported that two self-proclaimed separatist republics in Ukraine’s industrial east – the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic – have appointed ambassadors extraordinary to Moscow. A spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, Oleg Nykolenko, said the ambassadors were “traitors” and would likely be charged with treason. ___
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Trisha Thomas in Rome, Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhzhia, Inna Varenytsia and David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, and AP staffers around the world contributed to this report .
https://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/national-international/united-nations-races-to-rescue-civilians-from-mariupol-plant/3230921/ 50 more civilians rescued from besieged Mariupol steel mill – NBC10 Philadelphia