Russia storms Mariupol factory as some evacuees reach safety

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces began storming the steel mill containing the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol on Tuesday, Ukrainian defenders said, just as dozens of civilians evacuated from the bombed-out factory reached relative safety and recounted days and nights filled with dread and despair in the face of constant shelling.

Osnat Lubrani, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, said that thanks to the evacuation effort over the weekend101 people – including women, the elderly and 17 children, the youngest of whom was 6 months old – were able to get out of the bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks and “see the light of day after two months”.

An evacuee said she went to sleep at the factory every night, fearing she might not wake up.

“You can’t imagine how scary it is to sit in a shelter, in a wet, damp basement bouncing, shaking,” said Elina Tsybulchenko, 54, as she arrived in the city of Zaporizhzhia under Ukrainian control, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, in a convoy of buses and ambulances.

She added: “We were praying to God for missiles to fly over our shelter because if he hit the shelter we would all be finished.”

The evacuees, some of whom were in tears, made their way from the buses to a tent offering some of the comforts long denied them during their weeks underground, including hot food, nappies and connections to the outside world. The mothers fed the little children. Some of the evacuees browsed through shelves of donated clothing, including new underwear.

The news for those left behind was grimmer. Ukrainian commanders said Russian forces backed by tanks had begun storming the sprawling factory, which includes a maze of tunnels and bunkers spread over 11 square kilometers (4 square miles).

How many Ukrainian fighters were locked inside was unclear, but the Russians put the number at around 2,000 in recent weeks, and 500 were thought to have been injured. A few hundred civilians also remained there, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

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“We will do everything possible to repel the assault, but we call for urgent measures to evacuate the civilians who remain inside the plant and get them out safely,” said Sviatoslav Palamar, commander. deputy of the Ukrainian Azov regiment. Telegram messaging app.

He added that throughout the night the factory was hit by naval artillery fire and airstrikes. Two female civilians were killed and 10 civilians injured, he said.

The UN’s Lubrani expressed hope for further evacuations but said none had been worked out.

In other battlefield developments, Russian troops shelled a chemical plant in the eastern town of Avdiivka, killing at least 10 people, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

“The Russians knew exactly where to aim – the workers had just finished their shift and were waiting for a bus at a bus stop to take them home,” Kyrylenko wrote in a Telegram post. “Another cynical crime of the Russians on our land.”

Explosions were also heard in Lviv, western Ukraine, near the Polish border. The strikes damaged three electrical substations, knocking out electricity in parts of the city and disrupting water supplies, and injured two people, the mayor said. Lviv has been a gateway for NATO-supplied weapons and a haven for those fleeing the fighting in the east.

A rocket also struck infrastructure in a mountainous area of ​​Transcarpathia, a region in far western Ukraine that borders Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, authorities said. There was no immediate word from casualties.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said Russian aircraft and artillery hit hundreds of targets over the past day, including troop strongholds, command, artillery positions, fuel and ammunition depots and radar equipment.

Ukrainian authorities said the Russians also attacked at least half a dozen train stations across the country.

The assault on the Azovstal steel plant began nearly two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his army not to storm the plant to finish off the defenders but to cordon it off. The first – and so far only – civilians to be evacuated from the destroyed factory came out during a brief ceasefire in an operation overseen by the UN and the Red Cross.

At a reception center in Zaporizhzhia, stretchers and wheelchairs were lined up, and children’s shoes and toys awaited the convoy. Medical and psychological teams were on standby.

Some of the elderly evacuees appeared exhausted upon arrival. Some of the younger ones, especially mothers comforting babies and other young children, seemed relieved.

“I am very happy to be on Ukrainian soil,” said a woman who only gave her first name, Anna, and arrived with two children, aged 1 and 9. “We thought we wouldn’t get out of there, frankly.”

A small group of women held signs in English demanding that the fighters also be evacuated from the steelworks.

The arrival of the evacuees was rare good news in the nearly 10-week conflict that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country, devastated towns and villages and shifted the balance of power of the post-Cold War East. Europe.

“Over the past few days, while traveling with the evacuees, I have heard fragile mothers, children and grandparents speak of the trauma of living day after day under relentless bombardment and fear of death, and with a extreme lack of water, food and sanitation,” Lubrani said. “They talked about the hell they went through.”

In addition to the 101 people evacuated from the steel plant, 58 joined the convoy in a town on the outskirts of Mariupol, Lubrani said. About 30 people who left the factory decided to stay in Mariupol to try to find out if their relatives were alive, Lubrani said. A total of 127 evacuees arrived in Zaporizhzhia, she said.

The Russian military said earlier that some of those evacuated chose to stay in areas held by pro-Moscow separatists.

A dozen people taken in the convoy were sick or injured, none of them in critical condition, according to Pascal Hundt, head of the Ukrainian office of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Tsybulchenko dismissed Russian claims that Ukrainian fighters would not allow civilians to leave the factory. She said the Ukrainian military had told civilians they were free to leave but would risk their lives if they did.

“We understood well that under these deadly weapons, we would not survive, we would not manage to go anywhere,” she said.

Mariupol became the symbol of human misery inflicted by war. The Russians’ two-month siege of the strategic southern port has trapped civilians with little or no food, water, medicine or heating, as forces from Moscow reduced the city to rubble. The plant in particular pierced the outside world.

After failing to take kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russia withdrew from the capital and announced that its main objective was the capture of the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, known as Donbass.

Mariupol is in the region, and its fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass.

But so far, Russian troops and their allied separatist forces appear to have made only minor gains in the eastern offensive.

Ukraine’s resistance has been greatly bolstered by Western weapons, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced 300 million pounds ($375 million) in new military aid, including radars, drones and armored vehicles.

In a remote speech to the Ukrainian parliament, he called the battle “Ukraine’s finest hour”, echoing the words of Winston Churchill during World War II.

“Your children and grandchildren will say that Ukrainians taught the world that the brute strength of an aggressor counts for nothing against the moral strength of a people determined to be free,” Johnson said.

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Associated Press reporters Inna Varenytsia and David Keyton in Kyiv, Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Bonny J. Streater