ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — A long-awaited effort to evacuate people from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway Sunday, the United Nations said, while U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed she visited Ukraine’s president to show unflinching American support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression.
Saviano Abreu, U.N. spokesperson for humanitarians, told The Associated Press the operation to evacuate people from Azovstal’s sprawling steel plant was done in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as Ukrainian and Russian officials.
As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
Abreu called the situation “very complex” and would not give further details. As with other evacuations the success in Mariupol was dependent on Russia’s forces. They were deployed at a series of checkpoints prior to reaching Ukrainian bases.
Zaporizhzhia is the destination for the evacuation efforts. It’s located approximately 141 miles (227.5 km) north of Mariupol. Zaporizhia was where Mariupol residents managed to escape after the Red Cross- or Ukrainian-organized evacuations failed to take place due to continued shelling and concerns about safety.
U.N. officials stated that the convoy of civilian evacuations began on Friday and traveled approximately 140 miles (230km) to reach Mariupol’s plant on Saturday morning.
Volodymyr Zeleskyy, Ukrainian President, stated in a Twitter Sunday afternoon that the initial group of 100 was headed for Ukrainian-controlled territory.
“Tomorrow we’ll meet them in Zaporizhzhia. Our team is very grateful! Now they, together with #UN, are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant,” he tweeted.
On Sunday, a team with Doctors Without Borders was at a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia in preparation for the U.N. convoy’s arrival, if successful. The health of the civilians trapped in the steel plant’s underground has been affected by stress, exhaustion, and low food supply.
Russian-occupied civilians fled fleeing the area have told of being shot at and Ukrainian officials repeatedly claimed that Russian troops bombarded evacuation routes they agreed on.
Russia’s high-stakes offensive in coastal southern Ukraine and the country’s eastern industrial heartland has Ukrainian forces fighting village-by-village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling as war draws near their doorsteps.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, who is in second place to succeed President Obama, was the senior American lawmaker that traveled to Ukraine after Russia invaded Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2014. Her Saturday visit came just days after Russia launched rockets at the capital during a visit by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
During a Sunday news conference in the Polish city of Rzeszow, Pelosi said she and other members of a U.S. congressional delegation met with Zelenskyy in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, for three hours and brought him “a message of appreciation from the American people for his leadership.”
Rep. Jason Crow, a U.S. Army veteran and a member of the House intelligence and armed services committees, said he came to Ukraine with three areas of focus: “Weapons, weapons and weapons.”
“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win. What we have seen in the last two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight and their ability to win if they have the support to do so,” the Colorado Democrat said.
After failing to capture Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russian forces launched a massive military operation to take control of large parts in southern and eastern Ukraine. Mariupol on the Sea of Azov is a strategic target due to its proximity to the Crimea Peninsula. Russia captured it from Ukraine in 2014.
“All the leaders of the free world know what Russia has done to Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. He warned that Russia was “gathering additional forces for new attacks against our military in the east of the country.”
Although limited evacuations were made from the city on Saturday due to volatile ground conditions and multiple parties involved, the details of what happened was not clear.
According to Russian Defense Ministry 46 people had been evacuated from the Azovstal Plant area.
Sviatoslav Palmar, Deputy Commander of the Ukrainian Regiment called Saturday for civilians and wounded fighters to be evacuated. “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed,” he said in a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel.
People from Zaporizhzhia in the southeast visited cemeteries every Sunday during Orthodox Christian mourning.
“If our dead could rise and see this, they would say, ‘It’s not possible, they’re worse than the Germans,’” Hennadiy Bondarenko, 61, said while marking the day with his family at a picnic table among the graves. “All our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”
It has been extremely difficult to get a complete picture of the ongoing battle in Eastern Ukraine because it is dangerous for journalists to travel around due to airstrikes, artillery fires and other threats. Both the Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine have placed strict restrictions on reporters’ access to the fighting zone.
Western military analysts suggest that the operation in Donbas (which includes Mariupol) is moving slower than originally planned. Since Moscow declared that it would concentrate its military power in the east, Russian troops have seen only marginal gains from the separatists.
Two Ukrainian wives shared video and photos from the Mariupol steel mill with The Associated Press. They showed two men wearing stained bandages, while others were sporting open wounds, or amputated limbs.
A skeleton medical staff was treating at least 600 wounded people, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard. According to them, some wounds were covered in gangrene.
The AP was unable to independently confirm the location and date of the video. However, the women claimed that it was shot in the past week within the maze of tunnels and bunkers below the plant.
Numerically, Russia’s military manpower vastly exceeds Ukraine’s. In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated Russia had positioned near the border as many as 190,000 troops; Ukraine’s standing military totals about 200,000, spread throughout the country.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s offensive still could intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. The Russian army is home to an estimated 990,000 personnel on active duty. Russia has an even larger navy and air force.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast armories mean Ukraine will continue to require huge amounts of support.
Fisch reported in Sloviansk. Reporting from Sloviansk was done by Jon Gambrell in Lviv and Yuras Karamanau in Kharkiv; Mstyslav Chenov in Kharkiv; Lolita Baldor, Washington; Trisha Thomson, Rome; and Associated Press reporters around the globe.
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