By CARA ANNA and YESICA FISCH
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The long-awaited effort to evacuate civilians from a steel mill in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway Sunday, as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed that she had visited the Ukrainian president to show unwavering American support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression.
A video posted online by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with young children bundled up in winter clothing helped as they climbed a steep pile of debris from the rubble of the factory, then finally climbed into a bus.
UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the operation to clear civilians from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being carried out with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.
The evacuation drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said more than 100 civilians – mostly women and children – were due to arrive in the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday.
“Today, for the first time since all the days of the war, this vital (humanitarian) corridor has started to function,” he said in a pre-recorded speech posted on his Telegram channel.
Later Sunday, one of the plant’s defenders said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant as soon as the evacuation of a group of civilians was completed on Sunday.
Denys Shlega, the commander of the Ukrainian National Guard’s 12th Operational Brigade, said in a television interview on Sunday evening that several hundred civilians remained trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “many” corpses.
“Several dozen young children are still in the bunkers under the factory,” Shlega said. “We need one or two more evacuation cycles.”
An assistant to the mayor of Mariupol also reported new shelling. “The cannonade is such that even (across the river) the houses are shaking,” Petro Andryushenko wrote in a Telegram post.
Up to 100,000 people are believed to still be in the Mariupol blockade, including up to 1,000 civilians who were entrenched along with around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters under the Soviet-era steel plant – the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
However, the fate of the Ukrainian fighters still entrenched in the factory was not immediately clear.
Abreu said civilians stranded for nearly two months would receive immediate humanitarian assistance, including psychological services once they arrived in Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol.
Mariupol experienced some of the worst suffering of the war. A maternity hospital was hit by a deadly Russian airstrike in the first weeks of the war, and around 300 people were reportedly killed in the bombardment of a theater where civilians were taking refuge.
The Mariupol city council said in a message on the Telegram messaging app that the evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin on Monday morning. People fleeing areas occupied by Russia in the past have described their vehicles as having come under fire, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of bombing evacuation routes on which the two sides were agreed.
A Doctors Without Borders team was in a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, in preparation for the arrival of the UN convoy. The stress, exhaustion and lack of food likely weakened the health of the civilians who were trapped underground at the factory.
Deputy commander of the Ukrainian regiment Sviatoslav Palamar, meanwhile, called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians. “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled territory is not discussed,” he said in a video released on the regiment’s Telegram channel on Saturday.
A video from inside the steel mill, shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands were among the fighters refusing to go there, showed men with bloodstained bandages, open wounds or amputated limbs, some of which appeared gangrenous. The AP could not independently verify the location and date of the video, which the women say was taken last week.
Meanwhile, Pelosi traveled to Kyiv on Saturday, the highest-ranking U.S. lawmaker to visit the country since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. His visit came just days after Russia fired rockets at the capital during a visit by UN Secretary General António Guterres.
Pelosi told a news conference in the Polish town of Rzeszow on Sunday that she and other members of a US congressional delegation met with Zelenskyy and brought him “a message of appreciation from the American people for his leadership”.
Rep. Jason Crow, a U.S. military veteran and member of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, said he came to Ukraine with three areas of interest: “Guns, guns and guns.”
“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win. What we’ve seen over the past two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight and their ability to win if they have the support to do so,” the Colorado Democrat said.
In his nightly televised address on Sunday, Zelenskyy said more than 350,000 people had been evacuated from combat zones through humanitarian corridors previously agreed with Moscow since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “The organization of humanitarian corridors is one of the elements of the negotiation process (with Russia), which is ongoing,” he said.
Zelenskyy also accused Moscow of waging “a war of extermination”, saying Russian bombardments hit food, grain and fertilizer warehouses, as well as residential areas in Kharkiv, Donbass and other regions.
“What could be the strategic success of Russia in this war? Honestly, I do not know. Ruined people’s lives and burnt or stolen property will give nothing to Russia,” he said.
In Zaporizhzhia, residents ignored air raid sirens and warnings to shelter in their homes to visit cemeteries on Sunday, when Ukrainians observe the Orthodox Christian Day of the Dead.
“If our dead could stand up and see this, they would say, ‘It’s not possible, they’re worse than the Germans,'” Hennadiy Bondarenko, 61, said while marking the day with her family at a table. picnic among the graves. “All of our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”
Russian forces embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine after their failure to capture the capital, kyiv. Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is a key target due to its strategic location near the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Russia’s high-stakes offensive has seen Ukrainian forces fighting village by village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery bombardment.
Ukrainian intelligence officials accused Russian forces of seizing medical facilities to treat wounded Russian soldiers in several occupied towns, as well as “destroying medical infrastructure, taking away equipment and leaving the population without medical care.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate said that in Volchansk, Kharkiv region, tuberculosis patients were “denied medical treatment and thrown into the street” as facilities were seized to treat wounded Russian soldiers. He said four hospitals in eastern Ukraine were also “forced to meet the needs of the Russian Federation”, and said Russian forces had organized an ammunition depot at a facility near Zaporizhzhia and banned staff to provide medical care to local residents. The AP could not immediately verify the accuracy of the claims.
Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. In addition, rebels backed by Ukraine and Moscow have introduced strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts suggested the offensive was proceeding much more slowly than expected. So far, Russian troops and separatists appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military force in the east.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid have flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine will continue to need huge amounts of support.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, the Russian offensive could intensify further and overtake the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian military has around 900,000 active duty personnel, as well as a much larger air force and navy.
Fisch reported from Sloviansk. Associated Press reporters Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Trisha Thompson in Rome, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
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