Ukraine to evacuate more civilians from besieged Mariupol


KYIV, UKRAINE: Ukrainian authorities plan to evacuate more civilians from Mariupol on Monday, after dozens were finally brought to safety after weeks trapped under heavy fire at the Azovstal steel complex in the strategic port city .
The factory has been under a Russian blockade since the February 24 invasion of Moscow, with stories of the harsh conditions in besieged Mariupol horrifying the world as a war that has left thousands dead and millions displaced entered its third month.
The UN said on Sunday that a “safe passage operation” was taking place at the Azovstal steel plant. According to kyiv, around 100 civilians were evacuated from the besieged factory, while the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was “currently participating” in the operation.
The Russian Defense Ministry gave a lower figure of 80 civilians, adding: “Those who wished to leave for areas controlled by the kyiv regime were handed over to UN and ICRC (Red Cross) representatives.”
In his daily address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the success of the operation and said more evacuations were expected on Monday.
“Today we finally managed to start the evacuation of people from Azovstal,” Zelenskyy said in a video address, adding that they were due to arrive in Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia on Monday.
“For the first time, there have been two days of real ceasefire in this territory. More than a hundred civilians have already been evacuated, women and children in the first place,” he said. added.
The head of the Donetsk regional military administration later said the evacuation would start at 7 a.m. local time (0400 GMT).
A Russian report put the number of civilians still in the factory at more than 500.
The Moscow Defense Ministry earlier confirmed that civilians were leaving, releasing video showing cars and buses driving around in the dark marked with a “Z”, the letter used by Russian forces in the conflict.
Those forces continued their push into eastern Ukraine on Sunday, killing eight civilians in rocket attacks in Donetsk and Kharkiv, regional governors said.
Moscow’s army has refocused on the east, notably the Donbass region, which includes Donetsk and Lugansk, after failing to take the capital kyiv in the first weeks of the war.
Lyman, a former railroad hub known as the “Red City” for its red-brick industrial buildings, is expected to be one of the next places to fall after Ukrainian forces withdraw.
Russian forces appear to have made notable advances around the city, advancing their positions by several kilometres, an AFP team in the area said on Sunday.
Three other people were killed in shelling of residential areas in and around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, regional governor Oleg Synegubov said on Telegram.
The Ukrainian army has also withdrawn from Kharkiv, with its troops now in a peripheral position, according to AFP journalists who recently visited the city.
Russia moved to tighten its grip on the areas it controls and on Sunday introduced the Russian ruble to the Kherson region, which was initially to be used alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.
“From May 1, we will move into the ruble zone,” said Kirill Stremousov, civil and military administrator of Kherson, quoted by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
He said the hryvnia could be used for a period of four months, but then “we will completely switch to ruble settlements.”
On the eastern front line, Russian troops – aided by heavy use of artillery – advanced slowly but steadily.
But Ukrainian forces have also retaken territory in recent days.
One of the areas regained 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, terrible, unrelenting fear,” Natalia, a 28-year-old evacuee from Ruska Lozova, told AFP after reaching Kharkiv.
kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a series of villages in the Donbass region and has asked Western powers to provide more heavy weapons to bolster its defenses there.
“Everyone understands that we have to hold the line here,” Lieutenant Yevgen Samoylov of the 81st Brigade told AFP as his unit moved away from the front line near the town of Svyatogirsk.
“We can’t let the enemy come any closer. We’re trying to hold them off with all our might.”
Western powers have sought to increase pressure on Russia as its attack on Ukraine drags on, with sources telling AFP on Sunday that the EU would propose a phased ban on Russian oil imports as part of its new series of sanctions against Moscow.
The European Commission, which is drawing up sanctions for the 27 EU countries, is preparing the text, which could be submitted to member states as early as Wednesday, diplomats said.
Several diplomats said the oil ban was made possible after a political U-turn by Germany, which resisted the measure, seeing it as too disruptive and potentially harmful to its economy.
And US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Speaker Zelenskyy on Saturday, becoming the highest-ranking US government official to visit since the war began.
“Don’t be bullied by bullies,” she told reporters at a press conference in Rzeszow, southern Poland, on Sunday after returning from Ukraine.
“If they make threats, you can’t back down.”
She has promised to enact the $33 billion (€31 billion) weapons and support package announced last week by US President Joe Biden.
Russia has been looking for ways to fend off growing international pressure.
Speaker of the lower house of parliament Vyacheslav Volodin has suggested that Moscow could seize Russia-based assets from countries it deems hostile. “It’s right to take reciprocal action,” he said.

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