People fleeing besieged Mariupol described weeks of bombardments and deprivation as they arrived Monday in Ukrainian-held territory, where officials and relief workers awaited the first group of civilians freed from a steel plant that is the last redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in the devastated port city.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
UN humanitarian spokesperson Saviano Abreu said civilians arriving in Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometres northwest of Mariupol, would get immediate support, including psychological services. A Doctors Without Borders team was waiting for the UN convoy at a reception centre for displaced people in the city.
Meanwhile, away from the battlefield, 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.
Wounded trapped in steel plant
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 theatre was bombed.
The city is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
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.
Along with his Azov regiment, Palamar said, marines, police officers, border guards, coast guard and are defending the plant. The bodies of dead Ukrainian fighters remain inside the plant, he said, “because we believe we will be able to move them to Ukrainian government-controlled territory. We have to do everything to bury heroes with honours.”
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.
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.
Some of Russia’s most elite forces “have suffered the highest levels of attrition,” the ministry said in its briefing on Twitter. “It will probably take years for Russia to reconstitute these forces.”
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. Zelenskyy has appealed to the West for more weapons, and tougher economic sanctions on Russia.
Published at Sat, 12 Feb 2022 16:04:48 +0000