Ukraine said a fresh UN-led rescue mission was under way Friday to evacuate the last civilians still trapped inside a besieged steel plant in Mariupol that has become the southern city’s final holdout against Russian forces.
About 200 civilians, including children, are estimated to remain in hiding in the Soviet-era tunnels and bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal factory, along with hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers.
Advertisements - Click the Speaker Icon for Audio
“The operation is starting. We are praying for its success,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told AFP by phone.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said his army was “ready” to provide safe passage to the civilians, as part of a Moscow-announced, three-day truce at the plant.
But Ukraine’s army denied there had been a pause in fighting at Azovstal, saying Russia was continuing attacks by ground and by air.
“There are resumed assault operations to take control of the plant,” said a Kyiv army spokesman in a video.
The United Nations has said a convoy was en route to help civilians escape the “bleak hell” of Azovstal, where food and water are running out and medical care is minimal.
The convoy is due to arrive later on Friday, in what would be the third joint evacuation operation with the Red Cross in Mariupol, a strategic port city reduced to rubble by relentless Russian bombardment.
Ten weeks into a war that has killed thousands, destroyed cities and uprooted more than 13 million people, Russia has focused its efforts on Ukraine’s east and south.
Capturing Azovstal and taking full control of the now-flattened Mariupol would be a major strategic victory for Moscow.
– May 9 fears –
It would also be a symbolic success as May 9 approaches, the day Russia traditionally marks its victory over the Nazis in World War II with lavish military parades.
Ukrainian officials believe Moscow is planning a May 9 victory parade in Mariupol, possibly with Ukrainian prisoners on display. Russia has not confirmed any such plans.
Moscow-backed separatists in southeastern Ukraine on Friday said they had taken down traffic signs spelling out the name of Mariupol in Ukrainian and English and replaced them with Russian ones.
Locals want to see proof that “Russia has come back here forever,” said Denis Pushilin, head of Ukraine’s breakaway region of Donetsk.
– ‘This hell’ –
Almost 500 civilians were already evacuated from Mariupol in the previous UN-organised rescue missions in recent days, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram.
He said renewed rescue efforts were continuing and that he would “give the results of this later”.
Kyiv will “do everything to save all its civilians and military”, he added.
In an address late Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russian shelling on Azovstal hadn’t stopped.
“Just imagine this hell! And there are children there! More than two months of constant bombing and constant death,” Zelensky said.
Speaking to the Israeli prime minister Thursday, Putin said the last Ukrainian defenders at Azovstal had to surrender.
“As for the militants remaining at Azovstal, the Kyiv authorities must give them an order to lay down their arms,” Putin said.
– Pentagon denial –
Since launching its invasion on February 24, Russia has suffered a string of battlefield setbacks and Kherson in the south remains the only significant city it has captured.
The Kremlin conceded Thursday that Kyiv’s Western partners had prevented a quick end to Moscow’s campaign by sharing intelligence and weapons with Ukraine, but that this was “incapable of hindering the achievement” of Russia’s military operation.
The United States is among Ukraine’s biggest backers, supplying military equipment and munitions worth billions of dollars as well as intelligence and training.
But the White House has sought to limit knowledge of the full extent of its assistance to avoid provoking Russia into a broader conflict beyond Ukraine.
Washington on Thursday denied an explosive report in The New York Times that it helped Ukraine target Russian generals.
Separately, US media reported Thursday that Washington had shared intelligence that helped Ukraine sink the Russian warship Moskva last month.
However a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the United States does not “provide specific targeting information on ships.”
– Oil embargo row –
Ukraine’s government has estimated at least $600 billion will be needed to rebuild the country after the war.
Zelensky, who has tirelessly campaigned for help from allies, on Thursday launched a global crowdfunding platform called United24 to help Ukraine win the war and rebuild its infrastructure.
More than six billion euros ($6.3 billion) were collected at a donors’ conference in Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Thursday.
In addition to financial and military assistance, Ukraine’s allies have also punished Russia for the invasion with unprecedented sanctions.
In what would its toughest move yet, the European Commission has proposed that all 27 EU members gradually ban Russian oil imports.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country is hugely reliant on Russian oil, opposes the ban and on Friday accused European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen of “attacking” EU unity.
The embargo would amount to “a nuclear bomb dropped on the Hungarian economy”, Orban said, adding that the proposed exemption for Hungary until end-2023 is not long enough.
– Farmers on front line –
Fighting continued across eastern Ukraine, Kyiv said.
In the Donetsk and Tavriya areas, “the enemy continues conducting active hostilities”, the Ukrainian ministry of defence said.
Shelling also continued in the town of Lyman in the Donetsk region, it added.
In the southwest, farmers racing to keep up with the spring planting season have found themselves ploughing around unexploded ordnance — one more piece of worrying news for next year’s harvest in Europe’s breadbasket.
“Every day since the start of the war we have been finding and destroying unexploded ammunition,” Dmytro Polishchuk, one of the deminers, told AFP before heading into a field in the southwestern village of Grygorivka to destroy an unexploded rocket.
Joshua Melvin, with David Stout in Kyiv