Mariupol mayor says contact lost with Ukrainian forces at Azovstal plant as heavy fighting continues

Pro-Russian troops stand guard next to a bus transporting evacuees near a temporary accommodation center in the village of Bezimenne in Donetsk region, Ukraine, May 1. (Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters)

The self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) says that in the 24 hours to 8 a.m. Wednesday (local time), a total of 517 people were evacuated from the besieged city of Mariupol to its center, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) ) from the east.

He said 61 of the evacuees were children, but it is unclear how many, if any, of the total were evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks.

CNN is unable to verify the reported numbers.

The DPR has set up a tent reception center in Bezimenne, where people leaving Mariupol are checked.

Ukrainian officials have described the facility, along with three other similar facilities around Mariupol, as filter centers where people often face abuse and harassment, as well as long delays.

The DPR’s Ministry of Emergency Situations manages the Bezimenne center, which has seen more than 27,000 people pass through since the beginning of March, according to the DPR.

The Russian Defense Ministry previously commented on the number of civilians evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, and said a number of them decided to stay in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

When evacuees emerge from a sprawling compound, they have the choice of heading into Ukrainian or Russian territory.

Those wishing to enter Ukrainian territory are handed over to representatives of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the official TASS news agency reported.

A bit of context: A CNN survey in April revealed that Russian forces and allied separatist soldiers were taking Mariupol residents to a so-called “filtration center” set up in Bezimenne, where they were registered before being sent to Russia, often against their will.

The Ukrainian government and local officials in Mariupol say tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been forcibly deported to the Donetsk People’s Republic and Russia since the war began.

In April, CNN interviewed 10 people, including local Mariupol residents and their relatives, who were taken by Russian and DPR soldiers to Russian-held towns before being deported to the Russian Federation.

CNN spoke to two people who were brought to Bezimenne before being sent to Russia. They described a huge military tent, where Russian and DPR soldiers processed hundreds of people – their fingerprints, photographed, their phones searched, interrogated, their passports examined and entered into databases.