By CARA ANNA and YESICA FISCH
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Some women and children were evacuated from a steel mill that is the last defensive stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the port city of Mariupol, a Ukrainian official and Russian state news organizations said, but hundreds are believed to be trapped with little food, water or medicines.
The United Nations was working to evacuate the up to 1,000 civilians living beneath the sprawling Soviet-era Azovstal factory after numerous previous attempts had failed. Ukraine has not said how many fighters there are in the factory, the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian troops, but Russia estimates the number at about 2,000. It is estimated that there are still 100,000 citizens in the city.
UN humanitarian aid spokesman Saviano Abreu said the world organization was in negotiations with authorities in Moscow and Kiev, but could not provide details of the ongoing evacuation effort “due to the complexity and fluidity of the operation.” .”
“There are currently ongoing high-level agreements with all governments, Russia and Ukraine, to ensure that you can rescue civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the factory,” Abreu told the AP. He would not confirm a video posted on social media that allegedly shows UN-marked vehicles in Mariupol.
Ukraine has attributed the failure of numerous previous evacuation attempts to continued Russian shelling.
In the town of Lyman in the Donetsk region, where at least half of the population has fled Russian shelling, about 20 elderly people and children holding bags with their dogs and cats boarded a minivan with a sign reading “Evacuation of children’ in Ukrainian. It sped away toward the town of Dnipro when explosions were heard in the distance.
“The liberators have come and set us free from what? Our lives?” said Nina Mihaylenko, a professor of Russian language and literature, referring to the Russian armed forces.
Galina Zuev and her husband Aleksander chose to stay, unwilling to leave the place where they had spent all their lives.
“I don’t live very well. There is a war here. They are shooting all the time. Our house has windows smashed. The missiles are in the yards,” said 68-year-old Galina. “It’s scary.”
Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to capture large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, the country’s industrial heart. Ukrainian troops fought village by village on Saturday to stop the Russian advance.
Russian news agency RIA Novosti said on Saturday that 19 adults and six children had been taken from the steel mill, but did not provide further details.
A top official from the Azov regiment, the Ukrainian unit that defends the factory, said 20 civilians were evacuated during a ceasefire, although it was not clear if he was referring to the same group. There was no confirmation from the UN
“These are women and children,” Sviatoslav Palamar said in a video on the regiment’s Telegram channel. He also called for the evacuation of the injured: “We do not know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the Ukraine-controlled area is not discussed.”
Video and images from inside the factory, shared to The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands were among the fighters who refused to surrender there, showed unidentified men with stained bandages; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.
A medical staff treated at least 600 injured, the women said, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard. Some wounds were rotting with gangrene, they said.
In the video, the men said they eat only once a day and share only 1.5 liters of water a day with four people, and the besieged facility has run out of supplies.
A shirtless man appeared to be in pain as he described his wounds: two broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a dislocated arm that “hanged from the flesh.”
“I want to say to everyone who sees this: if you don’t stop this here, in Ukraine, it will continue, to Europe,” he said.
The AP was unable to independently verify the date and location of the video, which the women say was taken over the past week in the maze of corridors and bunkers beneath the factory.
The women urged that Ukrainian fighters be evacuated along with civilians, warning they could be tortured and executed if captured. “The lives of soldiers also matter,” Yuliia Fedusiuk told the AP in Rome.
In his overnight video address late Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy switched to Russian to urge Russian troops not to fight in Ukraine, saying that even their generals expect thousands more to die.
The president accused Moscow of recruiting new soldiers “with little motivation and little combat experience” so that units that had been eliminated early in the war could be thrown back into combat.
“Any Russian soldier can still save his own life,” Zelenskyy said. “It is better to survive in Russia than to perish on our land.”
In other developments:
– Ukraine’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotsky said in televised comments that Russian troops seized hundreds of thousands of tons of grain in the area under their control. Ukraine is a major grain producer, and the invasion has pushed up world prices and raised concerns about shortages.
A Russian missile strike destroyed the airport runway in Odessa, Ukraine’s third most populous city and a major port on the Black Sea, the Ukrainian military said.
— The bodies of three men were found buried in a forest near Bucha, a suburb of Kiev, the chief of police in the Kiev region said. The men, whose bodies were found Friday, had been tortured before being shot in the head, Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian officials allege that retreating Russian troops have committed mass murders of civilians in Bucha.
– Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators talk to each other “almost every day”. But, he told China’s state news agency Xinhua, “progress has not been easy.”
— Two buses sent to evacuate residents from the eastern city of Popasna were fired upon and contact with the organizers was lost. Mayor Nikolai Khanatov said: “We know that (the buses) reached the city and then came under fire from an enemy sabotage and reconnaissance group.”
It has been difficult to get a full picture of the unfolding battle in eastern Ukraine, as airstrikes and artillery shelling have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to get around. Also, both Ukrainian and Moscow-backed rebels have introduced severe restrictions on reporting from the battle zone.
But Western military analysts suggested that the offensive in the Donbas region, of which Mariupol is a part, was much slower than planned. So far, Russian forces and separatists appear to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military strength in the east.
Numerically, Russia’s military manpower far exceeds that of Ukraine. In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated that Russia had deployed as many as 190,000 troops at the border; Ukraine’s standing army numbers about 200,000, spread all over the country.
With enough firepower in reserve, the Russian offensive could still intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. In total, the Russian army has an estimated 900,000 soldiers on active duty. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid have entered Ukraine since the start of the war, but Russia’s vast arsenal means Ukraine will continue to need massive amounts of aid.
Fisch reported from Sloviansk. Associated Press journalists Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Trisha Thompson in Rome and AP employees around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine