Russia steps up Azovstal siege as freed civilians reach Zaporizhzhia


Russian forces have shelled and attempted to storm the Azovstal steelworks, the last holdout of Ukrainian troops defending the southern port city of Mariupol, as a first convoy of refugees from the plant reached the city of Zaporizhzhia.

Video footage showed thick smoke in the sky above the site where officials said up to 200 civilians, including children, remained trapped in a network of underground bunkers and tunnels with up to 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers.

The Red Cross (ICRC) said more than 100 civilians had managed to escape in a convoy of buses and ambulances accompanied by ICRC and UN teams, joined by families and individuals in private vehicles.

The convoy, including some injured, safely reached Ukrainian-held Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230km) to the west, on Tuesday, the ICRC said. Others from the plant “went elsewhere” under their own steam and unaccompanied, it said.

Ukrainian evacuee describes months of horror inside Azovstal bunker – video

On Tuesday night, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, confirmed the evacuees had reached safety and that Russian troops were trying to storm the steelworks.

“We finally have the result, the first result of our evacuation operation from Azovstal in Mariupol, which we have been organising for a very long time. It took a lot of effort, long negotiations and various mediations,” he said.

“Today 156 people arrived in Zaporizhzhia. Women and children. They have been in shelters for more than two months. Just imagine! For example, a child is six months old, two of which are underground, fleeing bombs and shelling. Finally, these people are completely safe. They will get help.”

Exhausted-looking people, including young children and pensioners laden with bags, clambered off buses in the car park of a shopping centre. “I can’t believe I made it, we just want rest,” said Alina Kozitskaya.

One middle-aged woman walked away from the evacuation bus sobbing and comforted by an aid worker. A few women greeting the convoy held up handmade signs, calling on Ukrainian authorities to evacuate the soldiers – their relatives and loved ones – who are trapped in Azovstal and encircled by Russian forces.

Evacuees from Mariupol and its surrounds arrive in Zaporizhzhia. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA

“We’re scared … the guys will be left there. We don’t see any sign of help,” said Ksenia Chebysheva, 29, whose husband is among Azov battalion troops there. She had heard that her husband was still alive on 26 April, but had had no news since.

The UN confirmed the “successful evacuation” of 101 civilians in the five-day operation. “Women, men, children and older persons could finally leave the bunkers below the steelworks and see the daylight after two months,” said Osnat Lubrani, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.

“Over the past days, travelling with the evacuees, I have heard mothers, children and frail grandparents speak about the trauma of living day after day under unrelenting heavy shelling and the fear of death, and with extreme lack of water, food, and sanitation,” Lubrani said.

“They spoke of the hell they have experienced since this war started, seeking refuge in the Azovstal plant, many being separated from family members whose fate they still don’t know.” She said another 58 people had joined the convoy from the city of Mangush, outside Mariupol.

Pascal Hundt of the ICRC said the organisations “had hoped more people would have been able to join” and that “similar agreements are urgently required to alleviate the immense suffering of civilians trapped in hostilities”.

Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, had earlier said the column of evacuees should reach Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday, adding that 200 more civilians were still trapped under the complex and about 100,000 remained in the rest of the city.

Hospitals had been stocked up and medical staff reinforced by volunteers in preparation for the arrival of the convoy, Dorit Nitzan, the World Health Organization (WHO) incident manager for Ukraine, told Reuters.

“We are ready for burns, fractures and wounds, as well as diarrhoea, respiratory infections. We are also ready to see if there are pregnant women, children with malnutrition. We are all here and the health system is well prepared,” she said, adding that mental health was the “big issue”.

Russia’s defence ministry said its forces and pro-Moscow separatists were targeting the Azovstal plant with heavy artillery and aircraft fire, accusing its defenders of taking up new fighting positions during the weekend ceasefire that allowed the partial civilian evacuation.

The deputy commander of the Azov regiment, which is holed up in the plant, said Russian forces were storming the site, while another Ukrainian officer confirmed the assault on public television.

“The enemy is trying to storm the Azovstal plant with significant forces, using armoured vehicles. Our fighters are repelling all attacks,” said Denys Shlega, commander of the 12th operational brigade of Ukraine’s national guard.

Having failed to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has switched the invasion’s focus to the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as Donbas, parts of which have been held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

Fresh attacks in the Donetsk region killed 21 civilians and injured 27, the regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Tuesday. He said the figure was the highest daily death toll in the region since an attack on a railway station in Kramatorsk in April that killed more than 50 people.

“There are no safe cities in Luhansk region,” he said on Telegram.

Three more civilians were killed in the town of Vuhledar, and another three in Lyman, Kyrylenko said. Some other areas of Donetsk were under constant fire and regional authorities were trying to evacuate civilians from frontline areas, the Ukrainian president’s office said.

Attacks and shelling also intensified in Luhansk, with the most difficult area being Popasna, where it was impossible to organise evacuations, said the regional governor, Serhiy Haida.

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Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv, again came under heavy bombardment on Tuesday, the country’s military command said.

It said its forces were defending the approach to Kharkiv from Izium, a town on the Donets river, about 75 miles to the south-east, adding that Russian forces were also trying to take the frontline town of Rubizhne and heavy clashes were taking place around Popasna, in Luhansk.

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