Evacuation of some civilians from Ukraine's Mariupol delayed
KYIV (Reuters) – Efforts to evacuate more civilians from the devastated Ukrainian port city of Mariupol ran into delays on Monday and hundreds of people remained trapped in the Azovstal steel works, the last stronghold of resistance to the Russian siege.
It was not clear what was causing the hold-up of a convoy made up of civilians from the city itself.
Russian forces had on Sunday resumed shelling the steel works after an earlier convoy of buses had successfully left from that location, an aide to the mayor said.
The plight of civilians trapped in Mariupol, which endured weeks of bombardment before Russian forces captured most of it, has been a focus of humanitarian concern as the war has ground on into a third month.
Thousands are believed to have been killed and those still stuck in the besieged Azovstal complex, whose network of bunkers and tunnels has provided shelter, were running out of water, food and medicine.
“The situation has become a sign of a real humanitarian catastrophe,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
On other fronts, towns in eastern Ukraine were coming under intense Russian bombardment, a regional governor said. A Russian rocket strike hit a main bridge across the Dniester estuary just west of the port city of Odesa in southwest Ukraine, authorities said.
EU energy ministers were due to hold emergency talks in Brussels on Moscow’s demand that European buyers pay for Russian gas in roubles or face their supply being cut off.
While the EU has imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, the issue of Russian energy supplies has posed a dilemma that threatens to crack the united front.
A first group of evacuees from the steel works is expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, 230 km northwest of Mariupol, later on Monday.
But another convoy of civilians from the wider city has been delayed as the buses had not yet reached the agreed pickup point, the city council said. Mayor’s aide Petro Andryushchenko had earlier reported they had already left. The council urged the evacuees to remain in place.
Footage from inside the steel works showed members of the Azov regiment helping civilians though rubble and on to a bus.
But hundreds remain trapped inside.
One older evacuee accompanied by young children said survivors were running out of food. “Children always wanted to eat. You know, adults can wait,” she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces are now in control of nearly all the Sea of Azov city, linking up Russian-held territory to the west and east. Moscow said last week it had decided against storming the steel works and would instead blockade it. But bombardments have continued.
“Yesterday, as soon as the buses left Azovstal with the evacuees, new shelling began immediately,” Andryushchenko told Ukrainian television.
The Russian army said 126 people had left Mariupol in safe convoys over Saturday and Sunday from the steel works and other districts for separatist-controlled Donetsk. Of these 57 opted to stay in that area, while the others had decided to leave for Ukrainian-held parts, it said.
The Russian military is now focusing on crushing resistance in Ukraine’s south and east after failing to capture Kyiv in the early weeks of the war.
Its assaults have flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 5 million to flee the country.
Moscow calls its invasion a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war of aggression that threatens to spiral into a much wider conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday Moscow only wanted to guarantee the security of pro-Russian Ukrainians in the east and was not demanding that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy surrender as a condition for peace.
“Our aim does not include regime change in Ukraine,” Lavrov said in an interview published on his ministry’s website.
Ukraine’s military said on Monday Russian forces were trying to take over the eastern town of Rubizhne and prepare an assault on Sievierodonetsk.
Luhansk region Governor Serhiy Gaidai said three people had been killed by shelling over the past 24 hours.
The heaviest clashes were taking place around Popasna, to the west of the Russian-held regional capital. The shelling was so intense they could not even collect the bodies, he said.
“I don’t even want to speak about what’s happening with the people living in Popasna, Rubizhne and Novotoshkivske right now. These cities simply don’t exist anymore. They have completely destroyed them.”
Moscow is pushing for complete control of the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists already held parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces before the invasion.
In Russia, two explosions took place on Monday in Belgorod, a southern region bordering Ukraine, governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said. The cause of the blasts was not clear but the Kremlin has accused Ukraine of making cross-border attacks. Gladkov said there were no casualties.
(This story corrects to clarify convoys involved)
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