Russia-Ukraine crisis: Evacuation of civilians from Ukrainian steel plant begins

The city is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula



Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

By AP

Published: Mon 2 May 2022, 12:00 PM

Ukrainian civilians holed up inside a steel plant in Mariupol under siege by Russian forces nearly two months began evacuating over the weekend and people sheltering elsewhere in the city were to leave Monday, local officials said.

A video posted online Sunday by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children climbing over a steep pile of rubble from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant and eventually boarding a bus.

More than 100 civilians were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday.

“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed (humanitarian) corridor has started working,” Zelensky said in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram messaging channel.

There were worries about the evacuees’ safety. People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have said their vehicles were fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling agreed-upon evacuation routes.

A Ukrainian defender of the steel plant urged groups like the UN and the Red Cross to ensure the safety of those being evacuated. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, told The Associated Press in an interview that there should be guarantees from “a third party — politicians, world leaders — who will cooperate to negotiate with Russians to extract us from here.”

Another of the plant’s defenders said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant Sunday as soon as the civilians were evacuated.

Denys Shlega, commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview Sunday night that several hundred civilians are still trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” dead bodies.

“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said.

As many as 100,000 people may still be in Mariupol, including an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the sprawling, Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.

Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, has seen some of the worst suffering. A Russian airstrike hit a maternity hospital in early weeks of the war, and hundreds of people were reported killed when a theater was bombed.

The city is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Palamar, the Ukrainian commander, told the AP on Sunday that reaching some of the wounded in the steel plant is difficult.

“There’s rubble. We have no special equipment. It’s hard for soldiers to pick up slabs weighing tons only with their arms,” he said. “We hear voices of people who are still alive” inside shattered buildings.

UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said civilians arriving in Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, would get immediate support, including psychological services. A Doctors Without Borders team was waiting for the UN convoy at a reception center for displaced people in the city.

Palamar called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians.

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