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About 100 civilians evacuated from Mariupol as Pelosi visits Ukraine’s Zelenskyy in Kyiv

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Around 100 Ukrainian civilians were evacuated from the ruined Azovstal steelworks in the city of Mariupol on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, after the United Nations confirmed a “safe passage operation” was in progress there.

The strategic port city on the Azov Sea has endured the most destructive siege of the war with Russia – now in its third month – with Pope Francis, in an implicit criticism of Moscow, telling thousands of people in St Peter’s Square on Sunday it had been “barbarously bombarded.”

“For the first time, we had two days of a ceasefire on this territory, and we managed to take out more than 100 civilians – women, children,” Zelenskyy said in a nightly video address.

Read more: Russian missile strike damages Odesa airport, Ukraine military says

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The first evacuees would arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday morning, he said, adding that he hoped conditions would continue that allowed for more people to be evacuated.

With fighting stretching along a broad front in southern and eastern Ukraine, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged continued U.S. support for Ukraine when she met Zelenskyy in an unannounced visit to Kyiv.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in New York he would add provisions to a $33 billion Ukraine aid package to allow the United States to seize Russian oligarchs’ assets and send money from their sale directly to Ukraine.

President Joe Biden asked Congress to approve the aid package on Thursday in what would mark a dramatic escalation of U.S. funding for Ukraine.

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The White House said Biden had spoken with Pelosi on Sunday about her trip without giving details.

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Russia’s military has turned its focus to Ukraine’s south and east after failing to capture Kyiv in the early weeks of a war that has flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 5 million to flee the country.

In Mariupol, Moscow declared victory on April 21 even as hundreds of holdout Ukrainian troops and civilians took shelter in the Azovstal steelworks, a vast Soviet-era complex with a network of bunkers and tunnels, where they have been trapped with little food, water or medicine.

Negotiations to evacuate the civilians had repeatedly broken down in recent weeks, with Russia and Ukraine blaming each other.

But on Sunday, more than 50 civilians arrived at a temporary accommodation center after escaping from Mariupol, a Reuters photographer said.

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The civilians arrived on buses at the Russian-held village of Bezimenne, around 30 km (18 miles) east of Mariupol, where a row of light blue tents had been set up, in a convoy with U.N. and Russian military vehicles.

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A spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said a “safe passage operation” had started on Saturday and was being coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russia and Ukraine.

Read more: Russian war wreaks more devastation on Mariupol, satellite photos show

He said no further details could be released so as not to jeopardize the safety of evacuees and the convoy.

Denys Shleha, commander of Ukraine’s 12th National guard brigade, speaking to television on Sunday from the Azovstal plant, said several hundred civilians remained in bunkers there, including about 20 children, and that one or two additional evacuation efforts of similar scale would be needed.

Russia’s defense ministry said 80 civilians had been evacuated from the plant.

Mariupol train station and destroyed buildings. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies)

A plan to evacuate civilians from areas of the devastated city outside the steelworks had been postponed to Monday morning, Mariupol’s city council said.

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U.S. 'Stands with Ukraine'

Footage posted by Zelenskyy on Twitter on Sunday showed him, flanked by an armed escort and dressed in military fatigues, greeting a U.S. Congressional delegation led by Pelosi outside his presidential office the previous day.

“Our delegation traveled to Kyiv to send an unmistakable and resounding message to the entire world: America stands firmly with Ukraine,” Pelosi, the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, said in a statement.

Read more: Angelina Jolie’s surprise Lviv trip interrupted by air raid sirens

Zelenskyy praised as substantive four hours of talks with Pelosi focused on U.S. weapons deliveries.

“We are grateful to all our partners who send Russia important and powerful signals of support for Ukraine by visiting our capital at such a difficult time,” he said.

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Moscow calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war of aggression.

Western nations have imposed broad economic sanctions on Russia and have been shipping increasing quantities of weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.

Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday it had carried out a missile strike on a military airfield near the port city of Odesa, destroying a runway and a hangar containing weapons and ammunition supplied to Ukraine by the United States and European countries.

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On Saturday, Ukraine said Russian missiles had knocked out a newly constructed runway at Odesa’s main airport.

It was unclear if they were referring to the same incident and Reuters could not immediately verify the reports.

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Eastern push

In the east, Moscow is pushing for complete control of the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists already controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces before the invasion.

On Sunday, Kharkiv region governor Oleh Synehubov warned residents in the north and east of the city of Kharkiv to remain in their shelters due to heavy Russian shelling. Reuters could not immediately verify reports of shelling in the area.

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, in a social media post, urged people to evacuate while it was still possible.

Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were fighting to push north from Kherson to the cities of Mykolayiv and Kryvyi Rih, and Zelenskyy said Russian troops continued to launch strikes on residential areas and had destroyed grain storage depots.

“This will only build up the toxic attitude to the Russian state and increase the numbers of those working to isolate Russia,” Zelenskyy said.

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— Reporting by Hamuda Hassan and Jorge Silva in Dobropillia, Ukraine, and Natalia Zinets in Kyiv; Additional reporting by Reuters journalists; Writing by Rami Ayyub, Clarence Fernandez, Frances Kerry, Alex Richardson and Michael Martina

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