KYIV — Pro-Russian forces said 50 more people were evacuated on Saturday from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, where scores of civilians have been trapped for weeks alongside Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Soviet-era plant.
The territorial defense headquarters of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) said on Telegram that a total of 176 civilians had now been evacuated from the steelworks.
Reuters could not immediately verify the report.
About 50 civilians had been moved on Friday from the sprawling, bombed-out plant to a reception center in nearby Bezimenne, in the separatist DPR, whose forces are fighting alongside Russian troops to expand their control of large parts of eastern Ukraine. Dozens of civilians were also evacuated last weekend.
“Today, May 7, 50 people were evacuated from the territory of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol,” the DPR said.
Mariupol has endured the most destructive bombardment of the 10-week-old war. The plant is the last part of the city – a strategic southern port on the Azov Sea – still in the hands of Ukrainian fighters. Scores of civilians have been trapped for weeks alongside them in the plant with little food, water or medicine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late-night video address on Friday that Ukraine was working on a diplomatic effort to save defenders barricaded inside the steelworks. It was unclear how many Ukrainian fighters remained there.
“Influential intermediaries are involved, influential states,” he said, but provided no further details.
The defenders have vowed not to surrender. Ukrainian officials fear Russian forces want to wipe them out by Monday, in time for Moscow’s commemorations of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.
Evacuations of civilians from the Azovstal plant brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began last weekend. But they were halted during the week by renewed fighting.
The city’s mayor estimated earlier this week that 200 people were trapped at the plant. It was unclear how many remained.
President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Mariupol on April 21, ordered the plant sealed off and called for Ukrainian forces inside to disarm. But Russia later resumed its assault on the plant.
Asked about plans for Russia to mark Monday’s anniversary of the Soviet Union’s World War Two victory over Nazi Germany in parts of Ukraine it holds, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday “The time will come to mark Victory Day in Mariupol.”
BATTLE FOR THE EAST
Mariupol, which lies between the Crimea Peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014 and parts of eastern Ukraine taken by Russia-backed separatists that year, is key to linking up the two Russian-held territories and blocking Ukrainian exports.
Ukraine’s general staff said on Saturday Russian forces were pursuing an offensive in eastern Ukraine to establish full control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and maintain the land corridor between these territories and Crimea.
Near Kharkiv, Russian forces continue artillery shelling of settlements near the northeastern city. They blew up three road bridges in the region in order to slow down the counter-offensive actions of the Ukrainian forces, the general staff said.
Russia said on Saturday it had destroyed a large stockpile of military equipment from the United States and European countries near the Bohodukhiv railway station in the Kharkiv region.
The defense ministry said it had hit 18 Ukrainian military facilities overnight, including three ammunition depots in Dachne, near the southern port city of Odesa.
It was not possible to independently verify either side’s statements about battlefield events.
DRONE STRIKES IN MILDOVA
A senior Russian commander said last month Russia planned to take full control of southern Ukraine and that this would improve Russian access to Transdniestria, a breakaway region of Moldova.
Pro-Russian separatists in Moldova said on Saturday that Transdniestria had been hit four times by suspected drones overnight near the Ukrainian border. Nearly two weeks of similar reported incidents in Transdniestria have raised international alarm that the war in Ukraine could spread over the frontier.
Ukraine has repeatedly denied any blame for the incidents, saying it believes Russia is staging false-flag attacks to provoke war. Moscow, too, has denied blame.
In the Kharkiv region, governor Oleh Sinegubov reported three shelling attacks overnight on Kharkiv city and in the village of Skovorodinyvka, which caused a fire that nearly destroyed the Hryhoriy Skovoroda Literary Memorial Museum.
Skovoroda was a philosopher and poet in the 1700s. Sinegubov said the museum’s collection was not damaged as it had been moved to a safer place.
“The occupiers can destroy the museum where Hryhoriy Skovoroda worked for the last years of his life and where he was buried. But they will not destroy our memory and our values,” Sinegubov said in a social media post.
Moscow calls its actions since Feb. 24 a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of what it calls anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West.
Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war and have accused Russian forces of war crimes.
Moscow denies the allegations and says it targets only military or strategic sites, not civilians. More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled abroad since the start of the invasion.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Reuters bureaus; Writing by Michael Perry and William Maclean Editing by William Mallard and Frances Kerry)