By CARA ANNA and INNA VARENYTSIA
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — People fleeing besieged Mariupol described weeks of bombardments and deprivation as they arrived Monday in Ukrainian-held territory, where officials and relief workers anxiously awaited the first group of civilians freed from a steel plant that is the last redoubt of Ukrainian fighters in the devastated port city.
Video posted online Sunday by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children climbing over a steep pile of rubble from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant and eventually boarding a bus.
More than 100 civilians from the plant were expected to arrive in Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
The 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 Sea of Azov city and other places have broken down, with Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accusing Russian forces of shooting and shelling along agreed-upon evacuation routes.
“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed green corridor has started working,” Zelenskyy said Sunday in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram messaging channel.
At least some of the people evacuated from the plant were apparently taken to a village controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. The Russian military said Monday that some chose to stay in separatist areas, while dozens have left for Ukrainian-controlled territory. The information could not be independently verified.
In the past, Ukrainian officials have accused Moscow’s troops of forcibly relocating civilians from areas they have captured to Russia; Moscow has said the people wanted to go to Russia.
Zelenskyy told Greek state television that remaining civilians in the Mariupol steel factory were afraid to board buses because they believe they will be taken to Russia. He said he had been assured by the United Nations that they would be allowed to go to areas his government controls.
Mariupol has come to symbolize the human misery inflicted by the war. A Russian siege has trapped civilians with little access to food, water and electricity, as Moscow’s forces pounded the city to rubble in the face of stiffer than expected Ukrainian resistance.
Ukraine’s defense also thwarted Moscow’s attempt to take Kyiv in the opening weeks of the war and Russia has now shifted its focus to the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. Mariupol lies in the Donbas.
Russia says its military has struck dozens of military targets in the region in the past day alone. But Ukrainian and Western officials claim Moscow’s troops are using indiscriminate weapons that are taking a heavy toll on civilians and are making only slow progress.
While official evacuations have often faltered, many people have managed to flee Mariupol under their own steam in recent weeks. Others are unable to escape.
“People without cars cannot leave. They’re desperate,” said Olena Gibert, who was among those arriving an a U.N.-backed reception center in Zaporizhzhia in dusty and often damaged private cars. “You need to go get them. People have nothing. We had nothing.”
She said many people still in Mariupol wish to escape the Russia-controlled city but can’t say so openly amid the atmosphere of constant pro-Russian 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, told The Associated Press her family survived by cooking on a makeshift stove and drinking well water.
She said could see the steel plant from her window, when she dared to look out.
“We could see the rockets flying” and clouds of smoke over the plant, she said.
A defender of the plant said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant Sunday as soon as some civilians there were evacuated. It was unclear whether there would be further evacuation attempts.
Denys Shlega, commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview that several hundred civilians remain trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” dead bodies.
“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said.
Before the weekend evacuation, about 1,000 civilians were also believed to be in the the sprawling, Soviet-era steel plant, along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters. As many as 100,000 people may still be in Mariupol overall.
The city, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000, is a key Russian target because its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Moscow 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 Donbas.
A Ukrainian officer at the plant urged groups like the U.N. and the Red Cross to ensure the evacuation of wounded fighters, though he acknowledged that reaching some of the injured is difficult.
“There’s rubble. We have no special equipment. It’s hard for soldiers to pick up slabs weighing tons only with their arms,” Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, told the AP in an interview. “We hear voices of people who are still alive” inside shattered buildings.
The Azov Regiment originated as a far-right paramilitary unit and is now part of the Ukrainian military.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its forces struck dozens of military targets in eastern Ukraine in the past 24 hours, including concentrations of troops and weapons and an ammunition depot near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region, which lies west of the Donbas.
The information could not be independently verified. The Ukrainian president’s office said at least three people were killed and another seven, including a child, were wounded in the Donbas in the last 24 hours. The regional administration in Zaporizhzhia said that at least two people died and another four were wounded in Russian shelling of the town of Orikhiv.
A full picture of battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is hard to capture. The fighting makes it dangerous for reporters to move around, and both sides have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
Ukraine’s military claimed Monday to have destroyed two small Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea. Drone footage posted online showed what the Ukrainians described as two Russian Raptor boats exploding after being struck by missiles.
The AP could not immediately independently confirm the strikes.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine during the war, but Russia’s vast armories mean Ukraine still needs massive support. Zelenskyy has appealed to the West for more weapons, and tougher economic sanctions on Russia.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other U.S. lawmakers visited Zelenskyy on Saturday to show American support. On Monday, the delegation met with Polish President Andrzej Duda and lawmakers in Warsaw to express gratitude to the country for its support of Ukraine.
European Union energy ministers were meeting Monday to discuss a new set of sanctions, which could include restrictions on Russian oil — though Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc including Hungary and Slovakia are wary of taking tough action.
Varenytsia reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists Yesica Fisch in Sloviansk, Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
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