The first civilians evacuated from the bombed-out steel plant that has become the last stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol slowly made their way toward safety Monday, as others who managed to escape the city described terrifying weeks of bombardment and deprivation.
More than 100 civilians — including elderly women and mothers with small children — left the sprawling Azovstal steel mill on Sunday and set out in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometres to the northwest, according to authorities and video released by the two sides.
Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that the evacuees were making slow progress and would probably not arrive on Monday as hoped for.
At least some of them were apparently taken to a village controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. The Russian military said that some chose to stay in separatist areas, while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory. The information could not be independently verified.
In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow’s troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia. Moscow has said the people wanted to go to Russia.
Orlov said high-level negotiations were underway among Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on more evacuations.
People ‘desperate’ to leave
The evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in easing the human cost of the almost 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the Sea of Azov city and other places have broken down, with Ukrainian officials repeatedly accusing Russian forces of shooting and shelling along agreed-upon evacuation routes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he hoped more people would be able to leave Mariupol in an organized evacuation on Monday. The city council told residents wanting to leave to gather at a shopping mall to wait for buses.
As in the past when official evacuations faltered, some people managed to get out of Mariupol on their own, while others remained trapped.
“People without cars cannot leave. They’re desperate,” said Olena Gibert, who was among those arriving an a UN-backed reception centre in Zaporizhzhia in dusty and often damaged private cars. “You need to go get them. People have nothing.”
She said many people still in Mariupol wish to escape but can’t say so openly amid the atmosphere of constant pro-Moscow propaganda.
Anastasiia Dembytska, who took advantage of the brief cease-fire around the evacuation of civilians from the steel plant to leave with her daughter, nephew and dog, said her family survived by cooking on a makeshift stove and drinking well water.
She said could see the steelworks from her window, when she dared to look out.
“We could see the rockets flying” and clouds of smoke over the plant, she said.
Zelensky told Greek state television that remaining civilians in the Mariupol steel factory were afraid to board buses because they believe they will be taken to Russia. He said he had been assured by the United Nations that they would be allowed to go to areas his government controls.
Heavy slabs, lack of equipment hamper rescue
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.
A Ukrainian officer at the plant urged groups like the United Nations and the Red Cross to ensure the evacuation of wounded fighters, though he acknowledged that reaching some of the injured 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,” Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, told the AP in an interview. “We hear voices of people who are still alive” inside shattered buildings.
The Azov Regiment originated as a far-right paramilitary unit and is now part of the Ukrainian military.
Thwarted in his bid to seize Kyiv, the capital, President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus to the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, has seen some of the worst suffering. The city is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The Russian Defence Ministry said its forces struck dozens of military targets in eastern Ukraine in the past 24 hours, including concentrations of troops and weapons and an ammunition depot near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region, which lies west of the Donbas.
The information could not be independently verified. The Ukrainian president’s office said at least three people were killed and another seven, including a child, were wounded in the Donbas in the last 24 hours. The regional administration in Zaporizhzhia said that at least two people died and another four were wounded in Russian shelling of the town of Orikhiv.
A full picture of battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is hard to capture. The fighting makes it dangerous for reporters to move around, and both sides have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
Russia stymied in east, analysts says
Ukraine’s military 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 struck by missiles.
The AP could not immediately independently confirm the strikes.
But Western military analysts have suggested Russia’s offensive is progressing more slowly than planned. So far, Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists appear to have made only minor gains since the eastern offensive began last month.
The British Defence Ministry said in a daily briefing Monday that it believes more than a quarter of all troops Russia has deployed in Ukraine are “combat ineffective.” That phrase refers to a military’s ability to wage war, which is affected by losing soldiers to wounds and death and having equipment damaged or destroyed.
Former Russian PM Mikhail Kasyanov speaks to Rosemary Barton Live:
The British military believes Russia committed over 120 so-called “battalion tactical groups” into the war since February, which represents 65 per cent of all of Moscow’s combat strength.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine during the war, but Russia’s vast armouries mean Ukraine still needs massive support. Zelensky has appealed to the West for more weapons, and tougher economic sanctions on Russia.
European Union energy ministers were meeting Monday to discuss a new set of sanctions, which could include restrictions on Russian oil — though Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc, including Hungary and Slovakia, are wary of taking tough action.
Published at Sat, 12 Feb 2022 16:04:48 +0000