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The Ukrainian city awaits the first evacuees from the Mariupol Steel Plant

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — People fleeing besieged Mariupol described weeks of shelling and deprivation as they arrived Monday in Ukrainian-held territory, where aid workers were waiting for the first group of civilians to be freed from a steel mill that was the last redoubt Ukrainian fighter in devastated port is city.

Video posted online by Ukrainian forces on Sunday showed elderly women and mothers with young children climbing a steep pile of rubble at the sprawling Azovstal Steelworks before boarding a bus.

More than 100 civilians from the plant were due to arrive in Zaporizhia, some 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol, on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

The successful evacuation would represent a rare advance in easing the human costs of the nearly 10-week war that has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors from the Azov Sea city and other locations have failed. People who have fled Russian-held territories in the past say their vehicles have been shot at, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling agreed evacuation routes.

“Today, for the first time in all the days of war, this much-needed green corridor has started its work,” Zelenskyi said in a pre-recorded speech published on his Telegram news channel on Sunday.

At least some of the people evacuated from the facility were apparently taken to a village controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, although Russian state media reported they were allowed to travel further into Ukrainian-controlled territory if they wished. In the past, Ukrainian officials have accused Moscow’s troops of forcibly relocating civilians to Russia from territories they captured; Moscow said people wanted to go to Russia.

While official evacuations have often stalled, many people have managed to flee Mariupol on their own in recent weeks. Others cannot escape.

“People without a car cannot walk. They are desperate,” said Olena Gibert, who was among those who arrived in dusty and often damaged private cars at a United Nations-backed reception center in Zaporizhia. “You have to go get her. The people have nothing. We had nothing.”

She said that many people still in Mariupol want to flee the Russian-controlled city, but cannot say so openly given the atmosphere of constant pro-Russian propaganda. A siege on the city since the war’s early days has trapped civilians in appalling conditions, with scant access to food, water, medicine and electricity. They were intensively bombed, including a Russian air raid on a maternity hospital and the bombing of a theater.

Anastasiia Dembytska, who used the brief truce to evacuate civilians from the steel mill to leave with her daughter, nephew and dog, told The Associated Press her family survived by cooking on a makeshift stove and drinking well water have.

She said she could see the steel mill from her window if she dared to look out.

“We could see the missiles flying” and plumes of smoke over the facility, she said.

A defender for the plant said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant on Sunday once some civilians there had been evacuated.

Denys Shlega, commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s 12th Task Force Brigade, said in a TV interview that several hundred civilians were trapped, along with nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” dead.

“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers under the facility,” said Schlega. It was unclear if there would be further evacuation attempts.

About 1,000 civilians were believed to be inside the sprawling Soviet-era steelworks along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian militants ahead of the weekend’s evacuation. A total of up to 100,000 people could still be in Mariupol.

The city, which had a population of more than 400,000 before the war, is a key Russian target as its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it captured from Ukraine in 2014, and freeing up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass, now Russia’s main focus.

A Ukrainian officer at the facility called on groups including the UN and the Red Cross to ensure the evacuation of wounded combatants, although he acknowledged it was difficult to reach some of the injured.

“There’s debris. We don’t have any special equipment. It’s difficult for soldiers to lift tons of plates with just 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” in destroyed buildings.

The Azov regiment originated as a far-right paramilitary unit and is now part of the Ukrainian military.

In his nightly address on Sunday, Zelenskyy accused Moscow of waging a “war of annihilation” and said Russian shelling hit food, grain and fertilizer warehouses and residential areas in the city of Kharkiv, Donbass and other regions.

After failing to capture Kiev in the first weeks of the war, Russian forces launched a major military operation to seize Donbass, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces had attacked dozens of military targets in eastern Ukraine over the past 24 hours, including concentrations of troops and weapons and an ammunition depot near Chervone in the Zaporizhia region.

The information could not be independently verified. The Office of the President of Ukraine said at least three people had been killed and three others, including a child, injured in the east Luhansk region in the past 24 hours. Four people were said to have been injured in the shelling in Donetsk, another eastern region.

The regional administration in the more western Zaporizhia region said at least two people were killed and four others injured in the Russian shelling of the city of Orikhiv.

A complete picture of the fighting in eastern Ukraine is difficult to grasp. The fighting makes it dangerous for reporters to move about, and both sides have imposed strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.

Western officials say Russia is making slow progress in its eastern offensive and has captured some villages but is inflicting heavy civilian casualties from indiscriminate bombing. Ukrainian forces fight their offensive village by village while civilians flee from airstrikes and artillery fire.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said in a daily briefing on Monday that it believed more than a quarter of all combat units Russia has stationed in Ukraine are now “incapacitated” – disabled due to the loss of troops or equipment.

The British military believes that Russia has sent over 120 so-called “tactical battalion groups” to the war since February, accounting for 65% of Moscow’s total combat strength.

The Ukrainian military on Monday claimed to have destroyed two small Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea. Drone footage released online showed what the Ukrainians described as two Russian Raptor boats exploding after being hit by missiles.

The AP could not immediately independently confirm the strikes.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid have flowed to Ukraine during the war, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine still needs massive support. Zelenskyy has appealed to the West to demand more weapons and tougher economic sanctions against Russia.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other US lawmakers visited Zelenskyy on Saturday to show American support.

European Union energy ministers met on Monday to discuss a new set of sanctions that could include restrictions on Russian oil — although Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc, including Hungary and Slovakia, are wary of tough talk To take action.

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Varenytsia reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Yesica Fisch in Sloviansk, Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

https://abc7chicago.com/russia-ukraine-war-mariupol-steel-plant/11810836/ The Ukrainian city awaits the first evacuees from the Mariupol Steel Plant

Tom Vazquez

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