More than 100 people were evacuated from a steelworks in Mariupol that has become a last holdout of Ukrainian resistance to Russian forces in the besieged port city.
Repeated international efforts to broker safe passage for civilians sheltering in the Azovstal plant finally bore some fruit at the weekend as the UN and Red Cross confirmed an organised evacuation was under way.
Scores of civilians arrived on Sunday at an accommodation centre in Russian-controlled territory 30km east of Mariupol in two convoys of UN and Red Cross-badged vehicles, Reuters reported.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday night that more than 100 civilians had been evacuated over two days.
“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vital corridor has started working,” Zelensky said on his Telegram channel. “For the first time there are two days of real ceasefire.”
Officials say about 1,000 civilians have sought refuge in the vast steel plant, hiding in underground chambers for weeks as Russian artillery and air strikes have pounded the site. Conditions have become increasingly desperate as water, food and medicine have run short.
The evacuation began on Saturday evening when a ceasefire was finally observed and some 20 women and children were transferred from the site.
Zelensky said the evacuees were expected to arrive in Zaporizhzhia, west of Mariupol and under Kyiv’s control, on Monday morning.
“I hope that tomorrow all the necessary conditions will be met to continue to transfer people out of Mariupol,” Zelensky said.
Vadim Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, earlier on Sunday asked residents elsewhere in the city who wished to leave to gather at an evacuation point.
Satellite imagery released by Maxar Technologies shows the extent of devastation at the steel plant, one of the largest in Europe. Russia has resorted to increasingly powerful air strikes to try to break the Ukrainian resistance. A bunker-busting munition dropped on the site blasted a makeshift hospital underground, injuring hundreds of sick and injured patients.
Russian president Vladimir Putin declared victory for his forces in Mariupol on April 21, but Ukrainian forces have made the Azovstal plant a last redoubt.
Multiple attempts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol have been stymied by the Russian military on the ground, including the latest negotiated by UN secretary-general António Guterres last week. About 100,000 civilians are estimated to be still living in the city.
Yuri Ryzhenkov, chief executive of Metinvest, which owns the Azovstal plant, described conditions there in an interview last week. “It is a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said. “As far as we understand, people are under terrible conditions.”
Ryzhenkov said people — mostly women and children, including some Azovstal employees — were living in about 50 bomb shelters under the plant. The chambers dated from Soviet times and were separate, rather than connected like catacombs, he said. The facility was being bombed on an hourly basis, he added.
Those sheltering there had been living without electricity and external food supplies for almost two months.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, met Zelensky in Kyiv at the weekend, according to footage released by the president’s office on Sunday. Pelosi, who was leading a congressional delegation, became the highest-ranking US official to visit the Ukrainian capital since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February.
“We believe that we are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom . . . Your fight is a fight for everyone. Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” Pelosi said in a video shared by Zelensky on Twitter.