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Satellite imagery shows damage done to the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. AP/PA Images

Russian defence ministry says 80 Mariupol civilians have been handed over to UN or Red Cross

Earlier efforts at evacuations from the plant, the last site in the city still held by Ukrainian soldiers, had failed.

AROUND 80 CIVILIANS have been evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, with some handed over to the UN and the Red Cross, according to the Russian defence ministry.

“Eighty civilians, including women and children…have been rescued,” the defence ministry said in a statement. “Those who wished to leave for areas controlled by the Kyiv regime were handed over to UN and ICRC representatives.”

A UN spokesman had previously also confirmed that an evacuation is underway for civilians to leave the besieged Azovstal steel plant in the port city.

“UN confirms that a safe passage operation is ongoing in Azovstal steel plant, in coordination with the ICRC and the parties to the conflict,” spokesman Jens Laerke said.

He added that the convoy to evacuate the civilians had started on Friday, travelled some 230 kilometres and reached the plant in Mariupol on Saturday morning, local time.

Russian and Ukrainian figures for the operation have differed.

Russia’s defence ministry said a total of 46 civilians had left in two groups on Saturday from the area around the Azovstal plant – the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the city.

On Saturday, the Ukrainian forces guarding the site said that 20 civilians, including children, had left the area.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video yesterday evening that Kyiv was “doing everything to ensure that the evacuation mission from Mariupol is carried out”.

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said on Telegram today that there would be “radio silence on the evacuation situation”.

Thousands have been killed and millions displaced since Russia began its invasion on 24 February.

Four civilians were killed in Russian shelling in the town of Lyman today as Moscow’s forces push deeper into the eastern Donetsk region, the regional governor said.

“On May 1, four civilians were killed in Russian shelling in the Donetsk region, all in Lyman. Eleven other people were injured,” governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram.

Western powers have rushed to send military aid to Ukraine and imposed heavy sanctions on Russia.

Yesterday, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made an unannounced trip to Kyiv, making her the highest-ranking US official to visit the Ukrainian capital to date, following visits by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin last month.

 ”We are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom… Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” Pelosi said at a meeting with Zelenskyy.

russia-ukraine-war-us Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy awards the Order of Princess Olga to US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Kyiv. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

Pelosi also said in a statement that “additional American support is on the way” following President Joe Biden’s announcement last week of a $33 billion (€31 billion) arms and support package.

Russian ruble introduced

The conflict is now concentrated in the east and south of Ukraine, although there have been Russian missile strikes across the country, mainly targeting infrastructure and supply lines.

Fresh satellite imagery by private US firm Maxar taken on Friday showed a devastated Mariupol, with almost all of Azovstal destroyed.

Odessa’s regional governor Maxim Marchenko said a Russian missile strike had destroyed the airport runway, as Moscow continues targeting infrastructure and supply lines deep in the west of the country.

There were no victims from the airport strike near the historic city of one million people.

Near Bucha, the town near Kyiv that has become synonymous with allegations of Russian war crimes, police reported finding three bodies shot in the head with their hands tied.

The victims were found in a pit and had been “brutally killed” by Russian soldiers, the police said in a statement.

“The victims’ hands were tied, cloths were covering their eyes and some were gagged. There are traces of torture on the corpses,” the statement said.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they have pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes carried out by Moscow’s troops and are investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in Bucha.

Russia has denied any involvement in civilian deaths in Bucha.

Meanwhile, Russia has moved to solidify its grip on areas it controls and from Sunday introduced the Russian ruble in the region of Kherson – initially to be used alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.

“Beginning May 1, we will move to the ruble zone,” Kirill Stremousov, a civilian and military administrator of Kherson, was cited as saying earlier by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti.

He said there would be a period of four months in which the hryvnia could be used, but then “we will completely switch to settlements in rubles”.

Clearing debris

In Mariupol, the Azov regiment said yesterday that it had been clearing the debris of overnight shelling by Russia to rescue trapped civilians.

From the city’s badly damaged port zone, AFP on Friday heard heavy shelling coming from Azovstal during a media trip organised by the Russian army, with explosions only seconds apart.

“Twenty civilians, women and children… have been transferred to a suitable place and we hope that they will be evacuated to Zaporizhzhia, on territory controlled by Ukraine,” said Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment.

russia-ukraine-war Destroyed houses in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

But Denis Pushilin, leader of the breakaway eastern region of Donetsk, accused Ukrainian forces of “acting like outright terrorists” and holding civilians hostage in the steel plant.

On the front line in the east, Russian troops have advanced slowly but steadily in some areas – helped by massive use of artillery – but Ukrainian forces have also recaptured some territory in recent days, particularly around the city of Kharkiv.

One of the areas taken back from Russian control was the village of Ruska Lozova, which evacuees said had been occupied for two months.

“It was two months of terrible fear. Nothing else, a terrible and relentless fear,” Natalia, a 28-year-old evacuee from Ruska Lozova, told AFP after reaching Kharkiv.

“We were in the basements without food for two months, we were eating what we had,” said Svyatoslav, 40, who did not want to give his full name, his eyes red with fatigue.

Putin’s ‘depravity’

Thousands of people have been killed and more than 13 million have been forced to flee their homes since the Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour began on February 24, according to the United Nations.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Friday briefly choked with emotion as he described the destruction in Ukraine and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “depravity”.

Ukrainian prosecutors say they have pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes carried out by Moscow’s troops and are investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in Bucha.

Russia has denied any involvement in civilian deaths in Bucha.

Moscow officials confirmed on Friday that their forces carried out an air strike on Kyiv a day earlier during a visit by UN chief Antonio Guterres, the first such attack on the capital city in nearly two weeks. A journalist died in the attack.

‘Russia will not go unpunished’

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk meanwhile reported that 14 Ukrainians including a pregnant soldier had been freed in the latest prisoner exchange with Russian forces.

russia-ukraine-war An elderly woman sits on a bus with her dog during evacuation from Lyman, Donetsk region. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

She did not say how many Russians had been returned.

Kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a string of villages in the Donbas region.

“Even if there has been some advance by Russian troops on the ground, it is not very fast,” Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin told AFP.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the “special military operation… is proceeding strictly according to plan”, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

Russia has warned Western countries against sending more military aid.

“If the US and NATO are really interested in resolving the Ukraine crisis, then first of all, they should wake up and stop supplying the Kyiv regime with arms and ammunition,” Lavrov said.

But more Western armaments are due to arrive in Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden on Thursday seeking billions of dollars from Congress to boost supplies.

And a top Ukrainian military official yesterday said he had held talks with chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley on the “difficult situation in the east of our country, particularly in the Izium and Sieverodonetsk areas, where the enemy has concentrated its maximum efforts and the most combat-ready groups.”

“Despite the complexity of the situation, we provide defense, keep occupied boundaries and positions,” general Valery Zaluzhny said on Facebook.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that his country would also “intensify” military and humanitarian support.

And Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy said he spoke with Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson “on defense support for Ukraine and other efforts necessary to end the war”.

“I informed Boris about the current situation on the battlefield in the areas of active clashes and in detail about the situation in our east, in Mariupol, in the south of the country,” he said.

“All the leaders of the free world know what Russia has done to Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this.”

Zelenskyy was also reported yesterday to have met with a spokesman for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is trying to pave the way for an Istanbul summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy.

And with Sweden pondering a bid for Nato membership, defence officials there said Saturday that a Russian reconnaissance plane had briefly violated the northern country’s airspace a day earlier.

© AFP 2022

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