KYIV/BEZIMENNE — Around 100 Ukrainian civilians were being evacuated from a ruined steelworks in the city of Mariupol on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, after the United Nations had confirmed a “safe passage operation” was in progress there.
Mariupol, a strategic port city on the Azov Sea, has endured the most destructive siege of the war, with Pope Francis, in an implicit criticism of Russia, telling thousands of people in St Peter’s Square on Sunday it had been “barbarously bombarded.”
“Grateful to our team! Now they, together with (United Nations), are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant,” Zelenskiy tweeted. The evacuees would reach the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday, he said.
With fighting stretching along a broad front in southern and eastern Ukraine, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged continued US support for Ukraine when she met Zelenskiy in an unannounced visit to Kyiv.
Russia, meanwhile, said it had destroyed a stock of Western-supplied weapons at an airfield near Odesa, in southern Ukraine.
Moscow 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, Russia declared victory on April 21 even as hundreds of holdout Ukrainian troops and civilians took shelter in the city’s Azovstal steel works, 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.
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 UN and Russian military vehicles.
A spokesperson for the UN 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.
He said no further details could be released so as not to jeopardize the safety of evacuees and the convoy.
US ‘STANDS WITH UKRAINE’
Footage posted by Zelenskiy on Twitter on Sunday showed him, flanked by an armed escort and dressed in military fatigues, greeting a US 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 US official to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, said in a statement.
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.
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.
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, the governor of the Luhansk region, in a post on social media, urged people to evacuate while it was still possible.
Russia’s defense ministry accused Ukraine’s forces of shelling a school, kindergarten and cemetery in villages in the occupied southern Kherson region, the Russian RIA news agency said on Sunday.
The ministry said civilians had been killed and wounded but gave no further details. There was no immediate response from Ukraine and Reuters could not independently verify the report.
Russian forces captured the town of Kherson, 100 km (60 miles) north of Russian-annexed Crimea, in March.
Ukraine’s military said in a bulletin on Sunday that Russian forces were fighting to push north from Kherson to the cities of Mykolayiv and Kryvyi Rih.
(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 and Alex Richardson; Editing by David Goodman and Alexandra Hudson and Angus MacSwan)