The first civilians leave the Mariupol steelworks; hundreds remain

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In this photo taken from video, civilian evacuees accompanied by Red Cross personnel walk through an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Bezimenne, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Mariupol , eastern Ukraine, Saturday, April 30, 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has confirmed an evacuation of civilians is underway at a steelworks in the bombed city of Mariupol. Zelenskyy said on social media on Sunday that a group of 100 people were on their way from the Azovstal steelworks to Ukrainian-held territory. (AP Photo)

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People fleeing besieged Mariupol described weeks of bombardment and deprivation as they arrived in Ukrainian-held territory on Monday, where rescue workers were waiting for the first group of civilians freed from a steel mill that is the last redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in the city. devastated port.

Video uploaded by Ukrainian forces on Sunday showed elderly women and mothers with young children climbing a steep pile of rubble from the sprawling Azovstal steelworks and eventually boarding a bus.

More than 100 civilians from the factory were due to arrive in Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol, on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

The evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in mitigating the human cost of the nearly 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the city to the Sea of ​​Azov and other places have failed. People fleeing areas occupied by Russia in the past have said their vehicles have come under fire, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of bombing agreed evacuation routes.

“Today, for the first time since all the days of the war, this vitally needed green corridor has started to work,” Zelenskyy said Sunday in a pre-recorded address posted on his Telegram messaging channel.

At least some of those evacuated from the plant were apparently taken to a village controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, although Russian state media reported they would be allowed to continue into Ukrainian-held territory if they wanted it. In the past, Ukrainian officials have accused Moscow troops of forcibly moving civilians from captured areas to Russia; Moscow said people wanted to go to Russia.

While official evacuations have often failed, many people have managed to flee Mariupol on their own in recent weeks. Others are unable to escape.

“People without cars cannot leave. They are desperate,” said Olena Gibert, who was among those who arrived at a UN-supported reception center in Zaporizhzhia in dusty and often damaged private cars. “We have to go find them. People have nothing. We had nothing.

She said many people still in Mariupol want to flee the city under Russian control, but cannot say so openly in the atmosphere of constant pro-Russian propaganda. A siege of the city since the early days of the war has trapped civilians in dire conditions, with limited access to food, water, medicine and electricity. They came under heavy bombardment, including a Russian airstrike on a maternity ward and the bombing of a theater.

Anastasiia Dembytska, who took advantage of the brief ceasefire around the evacuation of civilians from the steel plant to leave with her daughter, nephew and dog, told The Associated Press her family survived by cooking on a makeshift stove and drinking well water.

She said she could see the steelworks from her window, when she dared to look outside.

“We could see the rockets flying” and clouds of smoke over the plant, she said.

A defender of the factory said Russian forces resumed shelling the factory on Sunday as soon as some civilians were evacuated.

Denys Shlega, commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s 12th Operational Brigade, said in a television interview that several hundred civilians remained trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “many” corpses.

“Several dozen young children are still in the bunkers under the factory,” Shlega said. It was unclear if there would be any further evacuation attempts.

Before the weekend evacuation, around 1,000 civilians were also in the sprawling Soviet-era steelworks, along with around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters. In total, up to 100,000 people could still be in Mariupol.

The city, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000, is a key Russian target because its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and freed up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass, now Russia’s main target.

A Ukrainian officer at the plant urged groups like the UN and the Red Cross to ensure the evacuation of injured fighters, although he acknowledged that it was difficult to reach some of the injured.

“There is rubble. We don’t have any special equipment. It is difficult for soldiers to pick up plates weighing tons only with their arms,” Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment, told the AP in an interview. “We hear voices of people who are still alive” inside destroyed buildings.

The Azov Regiment was originally a far-right paramilitary unit and is now part of the Ukrainian army.

In his late-night address on Sunday, Zelenskyy accused Moscow of waging “a war of extermination”, saying Russian shelling hit food, grain and fertilizer warehouses, as well as residential areas in the city of Kharkiv, in the Donbass and other regions.

After failing to capture kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize Donbass, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.

The Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had struck dozens of military targets in eastern Ukraine in the past 24 hours, including concentrations of troops and weapons and an ammunition dump near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region.

The information could not be independently verified. The Ukrainian president’s office said at least three people had been killed and three others, including a child, injured in the eastern region of Lugansk in the past 24 hours. He said four people were injured in the shelling of Donetsk, another eastern region.

The regional administration of Zaporizhzhia region further west said at least two people died and four others were injured in the Russian shelling of the town of Orikhiv.

A full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is difficult to grasp. The fighting makes travel for journalists dangerous, and both sides have introduced strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.

Western officials say Russia is making slow progress in its eastward offensive and has captured some villages, but is inflicting heavy civilian casualties through indiscriminate shelling. Ukrainian forces are carrying out their offensive village by village as civilians flee airstrikes and artillery fire.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in a daily briefing on Monday that it believed more than a quarter of all Russian-deployed combat units in Ukraine were now “combat ineffective” – ​​unable to fight due to loss of troops or equipment.

The British military believes Russia has committed more than 120 so-called “battalion battle groups” to the war since February, representing 65% of Moscow’s entire combat strength.

The Ukrainian army claimed Monday to have destroyed two small Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea. Drone footage posted online showed what the Ukrainians described as two Russian Raptor boats exploding after being hit by missiles.

The AP could not immediately independently confirm the strikes.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid flowed into Ukraine during the war, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine still needs massive support. Zelenskyy appealed to the West for more weapons and tougher economic sanctions against Russia.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. lawmakers visited Zelenskyy on Saturday to show U.S. support.

European Union energy ministers were meeting on Monday to discuss a new set of sanctions, which could include restrictions on Russian oil – although Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc, including the Hungary and Slovakia, are reluctant to take harsh measures.

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Varenytsia reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Yesica Fisch in Sloviansk, Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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