Evacuation under way for civilians trapped at Mariupol steelworks, UN says

UN organisation’s ‘safe passage operation’ began on Friday

Rory Sullivan
Sunday 01 May 2022 19:54 BST
Ukrainian man with van evacuates 200 people from Mariupol

The UN has said it is attempting to evacuate civilians holed up in the besieged Azovstal steelworks in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

The organisation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed on Sunday that the “safe passage operation” had begun on Friday, with a team arriving in the beleaguered port city on Saturday.

An OCHA spokesperson added that further details could not be given, as doing so could jeopardise the safety of evacuees and of its own personnel.

The UN’s involvement comes as the Russian defence ministry claimed that 46 Ukrainian civilians had left the steel plant – Ukraine’s last stronghold in the city – on Saturday.

The first group of 25 local residents were evacuated in the afternoon, before 21 others were taken at night to Bezimenne, a village in the Donetsk region, according to the Russian Tass news agency.

Reuters independently reported that a group of around 40 people had reached Bezimenne in Ukrainian buses, in a convoy that also included UN vehicles and Russian forces.

However, Ukraine has only confirmed that 20 citizens have been brought to safety.

A satellite image from 1 May, 2022, shows the damage caused at the steelworks (Planet Labs PBC/AP)

“We are getting civilians out of the rubble with ropes – it’s the elderly, women and children,” Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov battalion, told Reuters.

“We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed,” he added on his Telegram channel.

Last week, his battalion released footage that showed Ukrainian civilians hunkered down in Azovstal’s underground passages.

In the clip, one young girl said she and her family had seen “neither the sky nor the sun” since leaving their home on 27 February. “We want to see peaceful skies, we want to breathe in fresh air,” another woman said.

It is estimated that around 1,000 civilians still remain, with limited supplies, in the steel plant.

Speaking in Rome on Sunday, Pope Francis singled out the fate of Mariupol, a city named after the Virgin Mary.

“My thoughts go immediately to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the city of Mary, barbarously bombarded and destroyed,” he said.

“I suffer and cry thinking of the suffering of the Ukrainian population, in particular the weakest, the elderly, the children,” the leader of the Catholic Church added.

The Pope also implicitly criticised Vladmir Putin by calling the war in Ukraine a “macabre regression of humanity”.

A UN staff member walks in the village of Bezimenne, Donetsk, Ukraine, on 1 May, 2022 (Reuters)

In other developments, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Saturday, telling him Washington would help his country “until the fight is done”.

On Sunday, Ms Pelosi, whose visit came a week after US secretary of state Antony Blinken had travelled to the Ukrainian capital, described being “dazzled” by Mr Zelensky, who she said had shown “a remarkable masterclass of leadership” during their meeting.

Elsewhere, residents in the northeastern city of Kharkiv have been warned to stay in their shelters because of “intense shelling”. Its governor, Oleh Synyehubov, said residents should not go out into the streets even in the absence of air-raid sirens.

Meanwhile, Russia plans to exert economic influence over the captured city of Kherson with the introduction of the rouble, according to the British Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Kremlin-friendly administration Moscow has installed there announced the move.

“Recent statements from this administration include declaring a return to Ukrainian control ‘impossible’ and announcing a four-month currency transition from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian rouble. The Russian rouble is due to be used in Kherson from today,” the MoD said.

“Enduring control over Kherson and its transport links will increase Russia’s ability to sustain its advance to the north and west and improve the security of Russia’s control over Crimea,” it added.

Additional reporting from agencies

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