Ukrainian authorities are planning to evacuate more civilians from Mariupol on Monday, after dozens were finally brought to safety following weeks trapped under heavy fire in the strategic port city’s Azovstal steel complex.
The plant has endured a Russian blockade since Moscow’s invasion on February 24, with stories of the harsh conditions in besieged Mariupol horrifying the world as a war that has seen thousands killed and millions displaced entered its third month.
The UN said Sunday that a “safe passage operation” was taking place at the Azovstal steel plant. According to Kyiv, roughly 100 civilians have been evacuated from the besieged plant, while the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “currently participating” in the operation.
Russia’s defence ministry gave a lower figure of 80 civilians, adding: “Those who wished to leave for areas controlled by the Kyiv regime were handed over to UN and ICRC (Red Cross) representatives”.
In his regular daily address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the successful operation and said more evacuations were expected Monday.
“Today, we finally managed to start the evacuation of people from Azovstal,” Zelensky said in a video address, adding that they were due to arrive in Ukraine-controlled Zaporizhzhia on Monday.
“For the first time, there were two days of real ceasefire on this territory. More than a hundred civilians have already been evacuated — women and children first of all,” he added.
The head of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration later said the evacuation would begin at 7:00 am local time (0400 GMT).
One Russian news report put the number of civilians still in the plant at more than 500.
Moscow’s defence ministry earlier confirmed that civilians were leaving, releasing a video that showed cars and buses travelling in the dark marked with a “Z”, the letter used by the Russian forces in the conflict.
– ‘Relentless fear’ –
Those forces continued their push into eastern Ukraine on Sunday, killing eight civilians in rocket attacks in Donetsk and Kharkiv, the regions’ governors said.
Moscow’s army has refocused on the east, notably the Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Lugansk, after failing to take the capital Kyiv in the first few weeks of the war.
Lyman, a former railway hub known as the “red town” for its redbrick industrial buildings, is expected to be one of the next places to fall after Ukrainian forces withdrew.
Russian forces appeared to have made notable advances around the town, advancing on their positions by several kilometres, an AFP team in the area said Sunday.
Another three people were killed in shelling on residential areas in and around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, the regional governor Oleg Synegubov said on Telegram.
The Ukrainian army has also withdrawn from Kharkiv, with its troops now in outlying positions, according to AFP journalists who recently visited the city.
Russia has moved to solidify its grip on areas it controls and from Sunday introduced the Russian ruble in the region of Kherson — initially to be used alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.
“Beginning May 1, we will move to the ruble zone,” Kirill Stremousov, a civilian and military administrator of Kherson, was cited as saying earlier by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.
He said the hryvnia could be used during a four-month period, but then “we will completely switch to settlements in rubles”.
On the frontline in the east, Russian troops — helped by massive use of artillery — have advanced slowly but steadily.
But Ukrainian forces have also recaptured some territory in recent days.
One of the areas taken back from Russian control was the village of Ruska Lozova, which evacuees said had been occupied for two months.
“It was two months of terrible fear. Nothing else, a terrible and relentless fear,” Natalia, a 28-year-old evacuee from Ruska Lozova, told AFP after reaching Kharkiv.
Kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a string of villages in the Donbas region and has asked Western powers to deliver more heavy weapons to bolster its defences there.
“Everyone understands that we must guard the line here,” Lieutenant Yevgen Samoylov of the 81st Brigade told AFP as his unit rotated away from the front line near the town of Sviatogirsk.
“We cannot let the enemy move closer. We try to hold it with all our force.”
– ‘You cannot back down’ –
Western powers have sought to up the pressure on Russia as its onslaught on Ukraine drags on, with sources telling AFP Sunday that the EU will propose a phased out ban on Russian oil imports as part of its fresh round of sanctions against Moscow.
The European Commission, which draws up sanctions for the EU’s 27 countries, is currently preparing the text, which could be put to the member states as early as Wednesday, diplomats said.
Several diplomats said the ban on oil was made possible after a policy U-turn by Germany, which had resisted the measure, seeing it as too disruptive and potentially harmful to its economy.
And US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi met President Zelensky on Saturday, becoming the most senior US government official to visit since the war began.
“Do not be bullied by bullies,” she told reporters at a news conference in Rzeszow in southern Poland on Sunday after returning from Ukraine.
“If they are making threats, you cannot back down.”
She promised to enact the $33 billion (31 billion euro) arms and support package announced by US President Joe Biden last week.
Russia has been seeking ways to push back against the growing international pressure.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, suggested Moscow could seize Russia-based assets of countries it deems hostile. “It is fair to take reciprocal measures,” he said.