Evacuations underway in Mariupol, according to the UN

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A long-awaited effort to evacuate people from a steel mill in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway on Sunday, the United Nations said.

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 steelworks – the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.

Mr Abreu described the situation as “very complex” and gave no further details.

Like other evacuations, the success of the Mariupol mission depended on Russia and its forces going through a long series of checkpoints before reaching the Ukrainians.

Zaporizhzhia, a town about 141 miles (227 km) 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 about 230 km before reaching the Mariupol factory on Saturday morning.

(PA graphics)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a tweet on Sunday afternoon that the first group of around 100 people were heading towards Ukrainian-held territory.

“Tomorrow we will meet them in Zaporizhzhia. Thanks to our team! Now with #UN they are working to evacuate other civilians from the factory,” he tweeted.

On Sunday, a Doctors Without Borders team was in a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia to prepare for the arrival of the UN convoy, if successful. The stress, exhaustion and lack of food likely weakened the health of the civilians who were trapped underground at the steelworks.

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 industrial heartland of the country’s east has seen Ukrainian forces fighting village by village and more and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery bombardment as war approaches on their doorstep.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, meets with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Kyiv on Saturday
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, met with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in kyiv on Saturday (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

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,” Mr. Zelensky 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.

On Saturday, people sit in a bus during an evacuation from Lyman, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine
People evacuated from Lyman in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Saturday (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

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, 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.

A building damaged by Russian shelling in Dobropillya in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine
An apartment building damaged by Russian shelling in Dobropillya, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

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.

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