International

Russia-Ukraine war: Evacuations underway in Mariupol; US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visits war-torn country

Zaporizhzhia: The long-awaited effort to evacuate civilians from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway on Sunday (May 1, 2022), as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed she visited Ukraine’s president to show unflinching American support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression.

UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the operation to bring civilians out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being carried out with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.

Video posted online by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children bundled in winter clothing being helped as they climbed up a steep pile of debris from the plant’s rubble, and then eventually boarding a bus.

The evacuation operation drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who 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 channel.

Later on Sunday, one of the plant’s defenders said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant as soon as the evacuation of a group of civilians was completed.

Denys Shlega, the commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview on 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.”

An aide to Mariupol’s mayor said he also had received reports of renewed shelling. “The cannonade is such that even (on the opposite side of the river) the houses are shaking,” Petro Andryushenko wrote in a Telegram post.

As many as 1,00,000 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.

However, the fate of the Ukrainian fighters still hunkered down in the plant was not immediately clear.

Like other evacuations, success of the mission in Mariupol depended on Russia and its forces, deployed along a long series of checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian ones.

Zaporizhzhia, a city about 230 km northwest of Mariupol, was the destination of the evacuation effort. Abreu said civilians who have been stranded for nearly two months would receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services.

Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theatre where civilians were taking shelter.

The Mariupol City Council said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin on 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.

A Doctors Without Borders team was at a reception centre for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, in preparation for the UN convoy’s arrival.

Stress, exhaustion and low supplies of food were likely to have weakened the health of civilians who have been trapped underground at the plant.

Ukrainian regiment Deputy Commander Sviatoslav Palamar, meanwhile, called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians.

“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 Saturday on the regiment’s Telegram channel.

Meanwhile, Pelosi visited Kyiv on Saturday, the most senior American lawmaker to travel to the country since Russia’s February 24 invasion. Her visit came just days after Russia launched rockets at the capital during a visit by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

During a Sunday news conference in the Polish city of Rzeszow, Pelosi said she and other members of a US congressional delegation met with Zelensky and brought him “a message of appreciation from the American people for his leadership.”

In his nightly televised address on Sunday, Zelensky said more than 3,50,000 people had been evacuated from combat zones thanks to humanitarian corridors pre-agreed with Moscow since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.