Evacuation efforts at a sprawling Ukrainian steel plant continue

SAPORIANSCHIA – Efforts to evacuate more civilians from tunnels beneath a sprawling steelworks were set to continue on Saturday, when Ukrainian militants make their last stand in Mariupol to prevent Moscow’s full takeover of the strategic port city.

Dozens of people were evacuated from the Azovstal plant on Friday and handed over to representatives of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russian and Ukrainian officials said. The Russian military said the group of 50 included 11 children.

Russian officials and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said evacuation efforts would continue through the weekend. The last evacuees followed about 500 other civilians who had left the plant and the city in recent days.

The battle for the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city devastated by the Russian attack seemed increasingly desperate. And speculation has mounted that President Vladimir Putin wants to end the battle for Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time for Victory Day, the biggest patriotic holiday on 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.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also reminded people not to go into forests recently under Russian occupation because of the many landmines and tripwires.

According to the latest Russian estimates, around 2,000 Ukrainian militants are holed up in the vast labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal Steel Works. 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, commands the troops of the Azov regiment at the facility, desperately asked that the fighters be spared as well. 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.

Zelenskyi said “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers, although he did not name any.

“We are also working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still in Azovstal,” he said in his late night video address.

UN officials have kept a low profile on the civilian evacuation effort, but it seemed likely that the last evacuees would be taken to Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian-controlled city about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, where others moving from the had fled the port city were brought.


Some of the plant’s earlier evacuees spoke to AP about the horrors of being surrounded by death in the musty 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 Friday via messaging app Telegram 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 the rest of Mariupol after being bombed for two months. Before Victory Day, city workers and volunteers cleaned up the remains of the city, which had a population of more than 400,000 before the war. Perhaps 100,000 civilians remain there despite severe shortages of food, water, electricity and heat. Bulldozers shoveled up debris and people swept streets against a backdrop of hollowed-out buildings. 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 release some Russian troops to fight elsewhere in Donbass, the eastern industrial region the Kremlin says is now its main target. The city’s capture also has symbolic value, as it was the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and a surprisingly fierce resistance.


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 said the risk of massive shelling had increased ahead of Victory Day. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said authorities would step up street patrols in the capital. Ukraine’s southern Odessa region, which was the target of two rocket attacks on Friday, was due to impose a curfew.

Ukraine’s military general staff said its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbass region, destroying tanks and armored vehicles, further daunting Putin’s ambitions after his failed attempt to seize Kyiv. Russia has not acknowledged the losses.


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 Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, on Friday reported one person dead and three others wounded.


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 .


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Joel McCord

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