The first civilians evacuated from the bombed-out steel plant that has become the last stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol slowly made their way toward safety Monday, as others who managed to escape the city described terrifying weeks of bombardment and deprivation.
More than 100 civilians — including elderly women and mothers with small children — left the sprawling Azovstal steel mill on Sunday and set out in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometres to the northwest, according to authorities and video released by the two sides.
Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that the evacuees were making slow progress and would probably not arrive on Monday as hoped for.
At least some of them were apparently taken to a village controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. The Russian military said that some chose to stay in separatist areas, while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory. The information could not be independently verified.
In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow’s troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia. Moscow has said the people wanted to go to Russia.
Orlov said high-level negotiations were underway among Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on more evacuations.
The steel-plant evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in easing the human cost of the almost 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the southern port city and other places have broken down, with Ukrainian officials repeatedly accusing Russian forces of shooting and shelling along agreed-on evacuation routes.
Before the weekend evacuation overseen by the United Nations and the Red Cross, about 1,000 civilians were believed to be in the steel plant, along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters. As many as 100,000 people overall may still be in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000.
Russia has demanded that the fighters inside the plant surrender; they have refused.
In other developments, European Union energy ministers met Monday to discuss new sanctions against the Kremlin, which could include restrictions on Russian oil. But some Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc, including Hungary and Slovakia, are wary of taking tough action.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he hoped more people would be able to leave Mariupol in an organized evacuation on Monday. The city council told residents wanting to leave to gather at a shopping mall to wait for buses.
As in the past when official evacuations faltered, some people managed to get out of Mariupol on their own, while others remained trapped.
“People without cars cannot leave. They’re desperate,” said Olena Gibert, who was among those arriving at an UN-backed reception centre in Zaporizhzhia in dusty and often damaged private cars. “You need to go get them. People have nothing.”
She said many people still in Mariupol wish to escape but can’t say so openly amid the atmosphere of constant pro-Moscow propaganda.
Anastasiia Dembytska, who took advantage of the brief cease-fire around the evacuation of civilians from the steel plant to leave with her daughter, nephew and dog, said her family survived by cooking on a makeshift stove and drinking well water.
She said could see the steelworks from her window, when she dared to look out.
“We could see the rockets flying” and clouds of smoke over the plant, she said.
Russian forces have pounded much of the city to rubble, trapping civilians with little food, water, heat or medicine.
Zelenskyy told Greek state television that remaining civilians in the steel plant were afraid to board buses because they believe they will be taken to Russia. He said he had been assured by the U.N. that they would be allowed to go to areas his government controls.
Thwarted in his bid to seize Kyiv, the capital, President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus to the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Russia said it struck dozens of military targets in the region in the past day alone. It said it hit concentrations of troops and weapons and an ammunition depot near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region, which lies west of the Donbas.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Moscow’s troops are raining fire indiscriminately, taking a heavy toll on civilians while making only slow progress.
Zelenskyy’s office said at least three people were killed in the Donbas in the previous 24 hours. The regional administration in Zaporizhzhia said at least two people died in Russian shelling.
Ukraine’s military claimed to have destroyed two small Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea. Drone footage online showed what the Ukrainians described as two Russian Raptor boats exploding after being struck by missiles. The Associated Press could not immediately independently confirm the strikes.
Mariupol, which lies in the Donbas, is key to Russia’s campaign in the east. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops for fighting elsewhere in the region.
In the wake of the evacuation from the steel plant, Russian forces resumed shelling there Sunday, according to one of the defenders.
Denys Shlega, commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview that several hundred civilians remained trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” bodies.
“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said.
A full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is hard to capture. The fighting makes it dangerous for reporters to move around, and both sides have imposed tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Britain’s Defence Ministry said it believes more than a quarter of all the fighting units Russia has deployed in Ukraine are now “combat ineffective” — unable to fight because of loss of troops or equipment.
Ukraine said Russia also struck a strategic road and rail bridge west of the Black Sea port of Odesa. The bridge was heavily damaged in previous Russian strikes, and its destruction would cut a supply route for weapons and other cargo from neighboring Romania.