More than 100 civilians rescued from Mariupol steel plant as evacuations continue
More than 100 civilians have been evacuated to safety after weeks underground in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
The United Nations confirmed it had begun the “safe passage operation” with the International Committee of the Red Cross in co-ordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials on Sunday.
Civilians trapped underground have been taken to both Russia-controlled and Ukraine-controlled territory.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said more than 100 civilians, primarily women and children, were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday.
“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed (humanitarian) corridor has started working,” he said in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram messaging app channel.
The Mariupol City Council said on Telegram that the evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin Monday morning.
People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have described their vehicles being fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.
On Sunday evening, one of the Ukrainian soldiers defending the plant claimed that Russian forces resumed shelling it as soon as the evacuation of a group of civilians was completed.
Denys Shlega, the commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said that several hundred civilians remain trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” dead bodies.
“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said. “We need one or two more rounds of evacuation.”
As many as 100,000 people may still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said civilians who have been stranded for nearly two months at the plant would receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services, once they arrive in Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles northwest of Mariupol.
Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering. A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter.