Ukrainians desperate for rescue in Mariupol as Russian advance delayed
Ukrainian forces fought village by village on Saturday to halt a Russian advance in the east of the country, while the United Nations worked to broker a civilian evacuation from the last Ukrainian stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the port city of Mariupol.
According to Ukrainian officials, around 100,000 civilians still live in the city and up to 1,000 live under a sprawling Soviet-era steelworks. Ukraine has not said how many fighters are also at the factory, the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces, but the Russians put the number at around 2,000.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russian planes had continued to launch strikes on Mariupol, focusing on steelworks in Azovstal.
Meanwhile, Russian media reported that 25 civilians had been evacuated from the steelworks, although there was no confirmation from the UN. Russian news agency RIA Novosti said 19 adults and six children were taken out of the plant, but did not give further details.
A senior official from the Azov regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the plant, said 20 civilians had been evacuated during a ceasefire, although it was unclear whether he was referring to the same group as the Russian reports.
“They are women and children,” Sviatoslav Palamar said in a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel. He also called for the evacuation of the wounded: “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled territory is not discussed.”
Video and footage from inside the plant, shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands were among the fighters refusing to go there, showed unidentified wounded men with stained bandages to change; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.
Treating wounded in a steelworks
Skeletal medical personnel were treating at least 600 wounded, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Ukrainian National Guard’s Azov regiment. The regiment is a far-right armed group that was integrated into the country’s national guard after the first Russian invasion in 2014.
In the video shared by the women, the injured men tell the camera that they eat once a day and share as little as 1.5 liters of water a day between four people. Supplies inside the surrounded facility have run out, they said.
A shirtless man spoke with obvious pain as he described his injuries: two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a dislocated arm that “hung from the flesh”.
“I want to say to everyone who sees this: if you don’t stop it here, in Ukraine, it will go further, in Europe,” he said.
The AP could not independently verify the date and location of the footage, which the women say was taken last week in the maze of passageways beneath the steel mill.
The women urged that Ukrainian fighters also be evacuated alongside civilians, warning that they could be tortured and executed if captured. “Soldiers’ lives matter too,” Yuliia Fedusiuk told the AP in Rome.
The Soviet-era steelworks has an extensive underground network of bunkers that can withstand airstrikes. But the situation worsened after the Russians dropped “bunker breakers” and other bombs.
Mariupol city officials described severe shortages of food, water and medicine. UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the world organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kyiv but could not provide details on the ongoing evacuation effort “in due to the complexity and fluidity of the operation”.
“There are, right now, high-level engagements going on with all governments, Russia and Ukraine, to make sure you can save civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant.” , Abreu told The Associated Press. He did not confirm the video posted on social media that claimed to show UN-marked vehicles in Mariupol.
Ukraine has blamed the failure of many previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya channel that the real problem is that “humanitarian corridors are being ignored by Ukrainian ultra-nationals”. Moscow has repeatedly claimed that right-wing Ukrainians are thwarting evacuation efforts and using civilians as human shields.
In other developments:
- Actress Angelina Jolie paid a private visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, where she was spotted at a cafe and talking with people at the city’s central train station. Jolie is a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but an agency spokesperson denied she was in town on official UN business.
- The bodies of three men were found buried in a forest not far from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the Kyiv regional police chief said. The men, whose bodies were found on Friday, had been tortured before being shot in the head, Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian officials alleged that retreating Russian troops had committed massacres of civilians in Bucha.
- A Russian rocket attack destroyed the airport runway in Odessa, Ukraine’s third-most populous city and a key Black Sea port, the Ukrainian military said. Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency reported that “several” explosions were heard in Odessa on Saturday, prompting local authorities to advise residents to shelter in place.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators talk to each other “almost every day”. However, he told China’s state news agency Xinhua that “progress has not been easy”.
- Two buses that went to evacuate residents of the eastern Ukrainian town of Popasna were fired upon and contact with organizers was lost, Mayor Nikolai Khanatov said.
- Russian forces have stolen “several hundred thousand tons” of grain from the regions of Ukraine they occupy, Ukrainian Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotskiy said on Saturday.
- Ukraine carried out a prisoner exchange with Russia on Saturday, with seven soldiers and seven civilians returning home, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in an online post. One of the soldiers was a five-month pregnant woman, she added. She did not specify how many Russians had been transferred.
Only minor gains for Russia
Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in the east has been difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have introduced strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts have suggested that Moscow’s offensive in the eastern Donbass region, which includes Mariupol, is proceeding much more slowly than expected. So far, Russian troops and Moscow-backed separatist forces appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military force in eastern Ukraine.
Numerically, Russia’s military strength greatly exceeds that of Ukraine. In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated that Russia had positioned up to 190,000 troops near the border; The standing army of Ukraine numbers about 200,000 men, spread across the country.
Partly because of the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, the United States believes that the Russians are “at least several days behind what they wanted to be” as they attempt to surround Ukrainian troops at the is, said the top US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US military’s assessment.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s promised offensive could intensify further and overtake the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has about 900,000 men in active service. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy than Ukraine.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid have flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine’s needs are nearly inexhaustible.
“We need an unlimited number of weapons,” Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of trying to destroy Donbass and everyone who lives there.
The constant attacks “show that Russia wants to empty this territory of all people”, he said.
“If the Russian invaders are able to carry out their plans, even partially, then they have enough artillery and planes to turn all of Donbass to stone, as they did with Mariupol.”
Meanwhile, lines formed at gas stations in Kyiv, Dnipro and other cities as Ukraine faced fuel shortages because Russia destroyed its fuel infrastructure and blocked ports, Zelensky said. He said there were “no immediate solutions” to the shortages, but hoped the situation would improve within a week or two.