ZAPORIZHZHIA, UKRAINE – Some women and children have been evacuated from a steel plant that is the last defensive stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Russia’s high-stakes offensive in coastal southern Ukraine and the country’s eastern industrial heartland has Ukrainian forces fighting village by village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling as the war draws near their doorsteps.
The United Nations was working to evacuate residents from blockaded Mariupol. As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in the port city, included up to civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath a sprawling Soviet-era steel plant that is the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians .
Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine following their failure to capture the capital, Kyiv. Mariupol is a major target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Details about the scope of Saturday’s evacuations and the possibility of more to come Sunday were unclear given the number of parties involved in the negotiations and the volatile situation on the ground.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency said Saturday that 19 adults and six children were transported out of the city but gave no further details. A top official with the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the Azovstal steelworks, said 20 civilians were evacuated on Saturday, although it was not clear if they were referring to the same group.
In a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel, regiment 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 the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed,” they said.
The UN has not confirmed that people were able to leave Mariupol on Saturday. An Associated Press journalist saw women and children arriving in Bezimenne, a village which is under the control of Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
A Red Cross representative there said 20 civilians were evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant amid a temporary cease-fire observed by Ukrainian and Russian forces. Ukraine has blamed the failure of numerous previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a total of 46 people, groups of 25 and 21, were evacuated from areas near the plant.
Elsewhere in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, about 20 older adults and children clutching bags along with their dogs and cats boarded a minivan Saturday in the town of Lyman, where at least half of the population has fled Russian shelling, The van, marked with a sign reading “Evacuation of children” in Ukrainian, sped off towards the city of Dnipro as explosions were heard in the distance.
“The liberators have come and have freed us from what? Our lives? ” said Nina Mihaylenko, a professor of Russian language and literature, referring to the Russian forces.
Undeterred by air raid sirens and warnings to shelter at home, people in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia visited cemeteries on Sunday, when Ukrainians observed the Orthodox Christian day of the dead.
“If our dead could rise 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 his family at a picnic table among the graves. “All our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”
In his nightly video address late Saturday, Zelenskyy warned that Russia was “gathering additional forces for new attacks against our military in the east of the country.” He urged Russian troops not to fight in Ukraine, saying even their generals expect that thousands more of them will die.
“But why do the Russian soldiers need this? Why do their families need this? ” Zelenskyy said in Russian.
Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in eastern Ukraine has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Also, both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts have suggested that the offensive in the Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was going much slower than planned. So far, Russian troops and the separatists appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would focus its military strength in the east.
Video and images from inside the Mariupol steel plant, shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands are among the fighters refusing to surrender there, showed unidentified men with stained bandages; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.
A skeleton medical staff was treating at least 600 wounded people, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard. 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 said was taken in the last week in the maze of corridors and bunkers beneath the plant.
Numerically, Russia’s military manpower vastly exceeds Ukraine’s. In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated Russia had positioned near the border as many as 190,000 troops; Ukraine’s standing military totals about 200,000, spread throughout the country.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s offensive still could intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has an estimated 900,000 active-duty personnel. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast armories mean Ukraine will continue to require huge amounts of support.