Russia-Ukraine War: Civilian Evacuations Finally Underway in Mariupol

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Members of the Azov Regiment of Ukraine's defense forces walk with civilians during U.N.-led evacuations from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, after nearly two months of siege warfare on the city by Russia during its invasion, in a still image from handout video released May 1, 2022 by the Azov Regiment. DAVID ARAKHAMIA AZOV REGIMENT HANDOUT / REUTERS

Monday 2 May 2022. The United Nations have confirmed that the long-awaited evacuation of civilians from the steel plant in Mariupol was underway on Sunday just hours after US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, led a small congressional delegation to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv to show unflinching American support for the country’s defense against Russia’s invasion.

Denys Shlega, the commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview Sunday night 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. “We need one or two more rounds of evacuation.”

Sviastoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, which is helping defend the steel plant, told the Associated Press (AP) in an interview from Mariupol on Sunday that it has been difficult even to reach some of the wounded inside the plant.

Zelenskyy’s office posted a video on Telegram with Pelosi saying “We are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom.. Your fight is a fight for everyone and so our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done.”

Pelosi is the highest-ranking U.S. official to have met with Zelenskyy since the start of the war in February.

A video posted by Ukrainian forces surfaced the internet showing elderly women and mothers with small children bundled in winter clothing being helped as they climbed over piles of debris from the sprawling Azovstal steel plant’s rubble, eventually boarding a bus.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said more than 100 civilians, primarily women and children, were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday.

“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed (humanitarian) corridor has started working,” he said in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram messaging app channel.

The Mariupol City Council said on Telegram that the evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin Monday morning. People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have described their vehicles being fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.

Western weapons are increasingly flowing into Ukraine to aid its defensive fight against Russia’s eastern offensive and potentially weaken Moscow for the long term. Russia has responded with threats and escalation, including strikes on the shipments inside Ukraine.

But while Washington and its allies appear emboldened by Ukrainian forces’ staunch defense, in places like Mariupol, the situation remains dire.