Ukrainians grow desperate for rescue in Mariupol as Russian advance held off
Small number of civilians reportedly evacuated from holdout steel plant in besieged port city
Ukrainian forces fought village by village on Saturday to hold back a Russian advance through the country's east, 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.
An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and up to 1,000 are living beneath a sprawling Soviet-era steel plant, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine has not said how many fighters are also in the plant, the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces, but the Russians put the number at about 2,000.
Ukraine's military said on Saturday that Russian planes had continued to launch strikes on Mariupol, focusing on the Azovstal steelworks.
Meanwhile, Russian state news outlets reported that 25 civilians had been evacuated from the steel plant, although there was no confirmation from the UN. Russia's RIA Novosti news agency said 19 adults and six children were brought out of the plant, but it gave no further details.
A top official with the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the plant, said 20 civilians were evacuated during a ceasefire, although it was not clear if he was referring to the same group as the Russian news reports.
"These 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 the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed."
Video and images from inside the plant, shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands are among the fighters refusing to surrender there, showed unidentified wounded men with stained bandages in need of changing; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.
Treating injured at steel plant
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. The regiment is a far-right armed group that was folded into the country's national guard after Russia's first invasion in 2014.
In the video shared by the women, the wounded men tell the camera they eat once a day and share as little as 1.5 litres of water a day among four people. Supplies inside the surrounded facility are depleted, they said.
One shirtless man spoke in obvious pain as he described his wounds: two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a dislocated arm that "was hanging on the flesh."
"I want to tell everyone who sees this: If you will not stop this here, in Ukraine, it will go further, to Europe," he said.
The AP could not independently verify the date and location of the footage, which the women said was taken in the last week in the warren of passageways beneath the steel mill.
The women urged that Ukrainian fighters also be evacuated alongside civilians, warning they could be tortured and executed if captured. "The lives of soldiers matter, too," Yuliia Fedusiuk told the AP in Rome.
The Soviet-era steel plant has a vast underground network of bunkers able to withstand airstrikes. But the situation has grown more dire after the Russians dropped "bunker busters" and other bombs.
City officials in Mariupol have described dire shortages of food, water and medicine. UN humanitarian spokesperson Saviano Abreu said the world organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kyiv but that he could not provide details of the ongoing evacuation effort "because of the complexity and fluidity of the operation."
"There is, right now, ongoing, high-level engagements with all the governments, Russia and Ukraine, to make sure that you can save civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant," Abreu told The Associated Press. He would not confirm video posted on social media that claimed to show UN-marked vehicles in Mariupol.
Ukraine has blamed the failure of numerous previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.
Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov told Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV that the real problem is that "humanitarian corridors are being ignored by Ukrainian ultra-nationals." Moscow has repeatedly claimed right-wing Ukrainians are thwarting evacuation efforts and using civilians as human shields.
Odesa airport runway destroyed, Ukraine says
To the west in Odesa, which has so far been relatively unscathed in the war, a Russian missile launched from Crimea destroyed the runway at the main airport, said Maksym Marchenko, Odesda's regional governor. No one was hurt, he added.
Ukraine's military said the airport could no longer be used. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's president, vowed in a late-night video address to rebuild the airport. "Odesa will never forget Russia's behaviour towards it," he said.
There was no comment on the strike from Moscow, whose forces have sporadically targeted Odesa, Ukraine's third-most populous city and a key Black Sea port. Eight people were killed in a Russian strike on the city last week, Ukrainian officials said.
In other developments:
- Actor Angelina Jolie paid a private visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, where she was spotted in a café and speaking with people at the city's central train station. Jolie is a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but a spokesperson for the agency denied she was in the city on official UN business.
- The bodies of three men were found buried in a forest not far from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the head of Kyiv's regional police force said. The men, whose bodies were found on Friday, had been tortured before they were shot in the head, Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian officials have alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.
- Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators talk "almost every day." However, he told Chinese state news agency Xinhua that "progress has not been easy."
- Two buses that went to evacuate residents from the town of Popasna in Eastern Ukraine were fired upon, and contact with the organizers was lost, Mayor Nikolai Khanatov said.
- Russian forces have stolen "several hundred thousand tonnes" of grain in the areas of Ukraine they occupy, Ukraine's deputy agriculture minister, Taras Vysotskiy, said on Saturday.
- Ukraine carried out a prisoner exchange with Russia on Saturday, with seven soldiers and seven civilians coming home, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in an online posting. One of the soldiers was a woman who is five months' pregnant, she added. She did not say how many Russians had been transferred.
Only minor gains for Russia
Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in the east has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Both Ukraine and the Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts suggested that Moscow's offensive in the eastern Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was going much slower than planned. So far, Russia's troops and Moscow-backed separatist forces appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would focus its military strength in Eastern Ukraine.
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 is about 200,000, spread throughout the country.
In part because of the strength of Ukrainian resistance, the United States believes the Russians are "at least several days behind where they wanted to be" as they try to encircle Ukrainian troops in the east, said the senior U.S. defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the American military's assessment.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia's promised offensive still could intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has an estimated 900,000 active-duty personnel. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy than Ukraine.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia's vast armouries mean Ukraine's needs are nearly inexhaustible.
"We need an unlimited number of weapons," Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesperson Col. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said.
With files from Reuters and CBC News