Evacuations underway in Mariupol; Pelosi visits Ukraine

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The body of a man lies in an apartment as Russian shelling continues in a village recently retaken by Ukrainian forces near Kharkiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

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A long-awaited effort to evacuate people from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway on Sunday, the United Nations said, while US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed that she had visited the Ukrainian president to show unwavering American support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression. .

UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told The Associated Press that the operation to get people out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being carried out with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.

Up to 100,000 people are believed to still be in the Mariupol blockade, including up to 1,000 civilians who were entrenched along with around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters under the Soviet-era steel plant – the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.

Abreu called the situation “very complex” and gave no further details. Like other evacuations, the success of the mission in Mariupol depended on Russia and its forces, deployed along a long series of checkpoints before reaching the Ukrainian ones.

Zaporizhzhia, a town about 141 miles (227 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, is the planned destination of the evacuation effort. Zaporizhzhia was the destination for residents of Mariupol who managed to flee the city on their own when previous evacuations organized by the Red Cross and Ukraine had to be canceled due to ongoing shelling or road safety issues.

The UN said the convoy to evacuate civilians began on Friday, traveling some 230 kilometers before reaching the Mariupol factory on Saturday morning.

People who fled Russian-occupied areas sometimes described their vehicles as being shot at. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of bombing escape routes that the two sides had agreed to.

Russia’s high-stakes offensive on Ukraine’s southern coast and the country’s eastern industrial heartland has seen Ukrainian forces fighting village by village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and gunfire. artillery as war approaches at their doorstep.

Pelosi, a California Democrat who is second in line to succeed the president, is the highest ranking US lawmaker to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. His Saturday visit came just days after Russia launched rockets at the capital during a visit. by UN Secretary General António Guterres.

At a Sunday news conference in the Polish city of Rzeszow, Pelosi said she and other members of a US congressional delegation met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv for three hours. and had brought him “a message of appreciation from the American people”. for his leadership. »

Rep. Jason Crow, a U.S. military veteran and member of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, said he came to Ukraine with three areas of interest: “Guns, guns and guns.”

“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win. What we’ve seen over the past two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight and their ability to win if they have the support to do so,” the Colorado Democrat said.

Russian forces embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine after their failure to capture kyiv. Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of ​​Azov, is a key target due to its strategic location near the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

“All the leaders of the free world know what Russia did in Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. He warned that Russia was “gathering additional forces for further attacks against our military in the east of the country”.

Limited evacuations of the city took place on Saturday, but the details were unclear given the number of parties involved in the negotiations and the volatile situation on the ground.

The Russian Defense Ministry said a total of 46 people, a group of 25 and another numbering 21, had been evacuated from areas near the Azovstal plant.

A senior official of the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the steel plant, said on Saturday that 20 women and children had been evacuated from the plant itself. Civilians took shelter in a maze of underground tunnels while the factory was under siege.

In a video broadcast on the regiment’s Telegram channel, the regiment’s deputy commander Sviatoslav Palamar called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians. “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled territory is not discussed,” he said.

An Associated Press reporter saw women and children arrive in Bezimenne, a village controlled by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, accompanied by UN and Red Cross officials. The UN has not confirmed that people were able to leave Mariupol on Saturday.

Elsewhere in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, about 20 elderly people and children holding bags with their dogs and cats boarded a van on Saturday in the town of Lyman, where at least half the population has fled the Russian bombings. “evacuation of children” in Ukrainian, rushed towards the town of Dnipro as explosions were heard in the distance.

“The liberators came and freed us from what? Our lives?” said Nina Mihaylenko, a professor of Russian language and literature, referring to Russian forces.

Undeterred by air raid sirens and warnings to shelter at home, residents of the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia visited cemeteries on Sunday, when Ukrainians marked Christian Day Orthodox of the dead.

“If our dead could stand up and see this, they would say, ‘It’s not possible, they’re worse than the Germans,'” Hennadiy Bondarenko, 61, said while marking the day with her family at a table. picnic among the graves. “All of our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”

Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine has been difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. In addition, rebels backed by Ukraine and Moscow have introduced strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.

But Western military analysts suggested the offensive in the Donbass region, which includes Mariupol, was proceeding much more slowly than expected. So far, Russian troops and separatists appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military force in the east.

Video and footage from inside the Mariupol steel plant, shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands were among the fighters refusing to go there, showed unidentified men with stained bandages; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.

Skeletal medical personnel were treating at least 600 wounded, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Ukrainian National Guard’s Azov regiment. Some of the wounds were rotting with gangrene, they said.

The AP could not independently verify the date and location of the video, which the women say was taken last week in the maze of hallways and bunkers beneath the factory.

Numerically, Russia’s military strength greatly exceeds that of Ukraine. In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated that Russia had positioned up to 190,000 troops near the border; The standing army of Ukraine numbers about 200,000 men, spread across the country.

With plenty of firepower still in reserve, the Russian offensive could intensify further and overtake the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has about 900,000 men in active service. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid have flowed to Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine will continue to need considerable support.

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Fisch reported from Sloviansk. Associated Press reporters Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Trisha Thompson in Rome, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine