ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine –
Russia has resumed pulverizing the Mariupol steel plant which has become the last stronghold of resistance in the bombed city, Ukrainian fighters said on Monday, after a brief ceasefire over the weekend allowed the first evacuation of civilians from the factory.
More than 100 people – including elderly women and mothers with young children – left the rubble-strewn Azovstal steelworks on Sunday and set off in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest, according to authorities and video released by both sides.
Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that the evacuees were making slow progress and were unlikely to arrive in Zaporizhzhia on Monday as planned. Authorities gave no explanation for the delay.
At least some of the civilians were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The Russian military said some chose to stay in breakaway areas, while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory.
In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia or Russian-controlled areas. The Kremlin denied.
Russian shelling of the sprawling factory by air, tank and boat resumed after the partial evacuation, the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, which is defending the factory, said on the Telegram messaging app.
Orlov said high-level negotiations were underway between Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on the evacuation of more people.
Evacuating the steel plant, if successful, would represent rare progress in mitigating the human cost of the nearly 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the southern port city and other locations have failed, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russian forces of firing and shelling along agreed evacuation routes.
Before the weekend evacuation, overseen by the United Nations and the Red Cross, around 1,000 civilians were in the factory, along with around 2,000 Ukrainian defenders. Russia demanded that the fighters surrender; they refused.
Up to 100,000 people in total could still be in Mariupol, which had a population of over 400,000 before the war. Russian forces reduced much of the city to rubble, trapping civilians with little food, water, heat or medicine.
Some residents of Mariupol got out of the city on their own, using private cars that were often damaged.
As the sun approached, Yaroslav Dmytryshyn, a resident of Mariupol, drove to a reception center in Zaporizhzhia in a car with a back seat full of young people and two signs taped to the rear window: “Children” and “Little ones”.
“I can’t believe we survived,” he said, looking worn but in good spirits after they arrived safely after two days on the road.
“There is no Mariupol,” he said. “Someone has to rebuild it, and it will take millions of tons of gold.” He said they lived just across the railroad from the steel mill. “Ruined,” he said. “The factory has completely disappeared.”
Anastasiia Dembytska, who took advantage of the ceasefire to leave with her daughter, nephew and dog, said her family survived by cooking on a makeshift stove and drinking well water. She said she could see the steelworks from her window, when she dared to look outside.
“We could see the rockets flying” and clouds of smoke over the plant, she said.
With most of Mariupol in ruins, the majority of the Russian battalion’s dozen tactical groups that were around the city moved north to other battlefronts in eastern Ukraine, according to a senior US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the Pentagon’s assessment. .
In other developments, European Union energy ministers met on Monday to discuss new sanctions against the Kremlin, which could include restrictions on Russian oil. But some Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc, including Hungary and Slovakia, are reluctant to take tough action.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he hoped more people could leave Mariupol during an organized evacuation on Monday. The city council told residents wishing to leave to congregate at a shopping center to wait for buses.
Zelenskyy told Greek state television that the remaining civilians at the steelworks were afraid to board buses because they feared being taken to Russia. He said he had been assured by the UN that they would be allowed to travel to areas controlled by his government.
Denys Shlega, commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s 12th Operational Brigade, said in a television interview that several hundred civilians remained trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “many” bodies.
“Several dozen young children are still in the bunkers under the factory,” Shlega said.
Thwarted in his bid to seize the capital Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused on Donbass, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for 2014.
Russia said it struck dozens of military targets in the region over the past day. He said he hit concentrations of troops and weapons and an ammunition dump near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region, located west of Donbass.
Ukrainian and Western officials say troops in Moscow are raining fire indiscriminately, taking a heavy toll on civilians while making only slow progress.
Zelenskyy’s office said at least three people had been killed in the Donbass in the past 24 hours. The Zaporizhzhia regional administration reported that at least two people died in the Russian shelling.
The governor of the Odessa region along the Black Sea coast, Maksym Marchenko, said on Telegram that a Russian missile strike on an infrastructure target in Odessa on Monday left people dead and injured. . He gave no details.
The missile attack swept away the roof of a church belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox faction loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, according to Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov.
Ukraine said Russia also rammed a strategic road and rail bridge west of Odessa. The bridge was heavily damaged in previous Russian strikes and its destruction would have cut off a supply route for weapons and other goods from neighboring Romania.
The attack in Odessa came eight years to the day after deadly clashes between supporters of the Ukrainian government and demonstrators demanding autonomy in the east of the country. In 2014, government supporters burned down a union building containing pro-autonomy protesters, killing more than 40 people.
Also on Monday, Ukraine claimed to have destroyed two small Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea.
Mariupol, which is in the Donbass, is the key to the Russian countryside to the east. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the region. .
A full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is difficult to grasp. The fighting makes travel for journalists dangerous, and both sides have imposed strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But the UK Ministry of Defense said it believed more than a quarter of all Russian-deployed combat units in Ukraine were now ‘combat ineffective’ – unable to fight due to loss of troops or weapons. ‘equipment.
Varenytsia reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters Yesica Fisch in Sloviansk, Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita Baldor in Washington and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
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