Dozens more civilians were rescued Friday from the tunnels under the beleaguered steelworks where Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol made their last stand to prevent Moscow’s full takeover of the strategically important port city.
Russian and Ukrainian officials said 50 people had been evacuated from the Azovstal plant and handed over to representatives of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Russian military said the group included 11 children.
Russian officials and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said evacuation efforts would continue on Saturday. The latest evacuees join about 500 other civilians who have left the factory and the town in recent days.
The fight for the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city reduced to rubble by the Russian onslaught has appeared increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to finish the Battle of Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time for VE Day on Monday. , the biggest patriotic holiday in the Russian calendar.
As the holiday commemorating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II approaches, cities across Ukraine have braced for an expected increase in Russian attacks and authorities have urged residents to heed air raid warnings.
“These symbolic dates are for the Russian aggressor like red for a bull,” Ukrainian First Deputy Interior Minister Yevhen Yenin said. “As the entire civilized world these days remembers the victims of terrible wars, the Russian Federation wants parades and prepares to dance on bones in Mariupol.”
According to Russia’s most recent estimate, around 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are locked in the vast maze of tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukrainian officials said ahead of Friday’s evacuations that a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety have grown as the battle has intensified in recent days.
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, commands the troops of the Azov regiment inside the factory, made a desperate appeal to spare the fighters as well. She said they would be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war, but would never go to Russia because it would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture and the death”.
If nothing is done to save her husband and men, they “will hold out until the end without surrendering,” she told The Associated Press on Friday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “influential states” were involved in efforts to rescue the soldiers, although he did not mention any by name.
“We are also working on diplomatic options to save our troops who are still in Azovstal,” he said in his nightly video address.
UN officials were tight-lipped on efforts to evacuate civilians, but it seemed likely the last evacuees would be taken to Zaporizhzhia, a Ukrainian-held town about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol where others who escaped the port city were taken.
Some of the factory’s former evacuees told the AP of the horrors of being surrounded by the dead in the moldy underground bunker with little food and water, poor medical care and dwindling hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“People literally rot like our jackets,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, where 30 others were left behind. “They desperately need our help. We have to get them out. »
Fighters defending the factory said on the Telegram messaging app on Friday that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the factory grounds. They said the car was heading towards civilians when it was hit by shelling, and one soldier was killed and six injured.
Moscow did not immediately acknowledge the resumption of fighting on Friday.
Russia took control of the rest of Mariupol after bombarding it for two months. Before VE Day, city workers and volunteers cleared what remains of the city, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000. Perhaps 100,000 civilians remain there with meager supplies of food, water, electricity and heat. Bulldozers picked up debris and people swept the streets against a backdrop of hollowed-out buildings. The Russian flags were hoisted.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port. It would also allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up some Russian troops to fight elsewhere in Donbass, the eastern industrial region which, according to the Kremlin, is now its main objective. Its capture also has symbolic value since the city was the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and surprisingly fierce resistance.
As they pounded the factory, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks into a devastating war that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country and razed vast tracts of cities.
Ukrainian officials said the risk of heavy shelling had increased ahead of VE Day. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said authorities would step up street patrols in the capital. A curfew was to come into effect in the Odessa region of southern Ukraine, which was the target of two missile attacks on Friday.
Ukraine’s army general staff said on Friday its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbass region and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after his failed attempt to seize kyiv . Russia made no acknowledgment of the losses.
The Ukrainian army also said it had advanced in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, retaking five villages and part of a sixth. Meanwhile, one person was reported dead and three others were injured following Russian shelling on Friday in Lyman, a town in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
In other developments:
– A Ukrainian army brigade said it used a US Switchblade “suicide” drone against Russian forces in what was likely Ukraine’s first recorded use of such a weapon in combat.
— The Ukrainian governor of the eastern region of Luhansk said residents of the city of Kreminna were being terrorized by Russian troops trying to cross the Seversky Donets River. Serhiy Haidai accused Russian troops of checking phones and “forcibly removing Ukrainian patriots”. His statements could not immediately be verified.
– Haidia also said more than 15,000 people remained in Severodonetsk, a city in the Lugansk region considered a key Russian target. He said he thought most residents wanted to stay even though “whole blocks of houses were on fire”.
– The small village of Nekhoteevk, in the region of Belgorod, in the south of Russia, bordering Ukraine, was evacuated on Friday due to shelling from Ukrainian territory, according to the regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov. His claims could not immediately be verified.
– Russian state agencies have reported that two self-proclaimed breakaway republics in Ukraine’s industrial east – the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic – have appointed extraordinary ambassadors to Moscow. A spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, Oleg Nykolenko, said the ambassadors were “traitors” and likely to be charged with high treason.
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters Trisha Thomas in Rome, Yesica Fisch in Zaporizhzhia, Inna Varenytsia and David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine