United Nations rushes to rescue civilians from Mariupol plant

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The United Nations scrambled Friday to rescue more civilians from tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol and the city at large, even as fighters holed up in the sprawling compound made their last stand to prevent for Moscow to take complete control. of the strategic port.

The fight for the last Ukrainian stronghold in a city reduced to ruins by the Russian attack seemed increasingly desperate amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to end the battle for Mariupol so he can present a triumph to the Russian people in time. for Monday’s Victory Day. , the largest patriotic holiday in the Russian calendar.

Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, according to Russia’s most recent estimate, are holed up in the vast labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers below the Azovstal steel mill, and have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine has said a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety have grown as the fighting has grown fiercer in recent days.

“Our colleagues are currently on the ground,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said of the latest evacuation effort. “We are in an extremely sensitive phase of this operation, working in close coordination with the Ukrainian and Russian authorities.”

He declined to share details “for the sake of the safety of those we are trying to get out and of course our own staff, who are there.”

Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband, Denys Prokopenko, commands the Azov Regiment troops inside the plant, made a desperate plea to save the fighters. She said they would be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war, but would never give in to Russia because that would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture and death.”

If nothing is done to save her husband and his men, “they will resist to the end without giving up,” she told The Associated Press on Friday as she and relatives of some of the regiment’s members drove from Italy to Poland.

It could take days to know whether the latest UN effort to evacuate civilians was successful, as people fleeing Mariupol typically have to pass through disputed areas and many checkpoints before reaching relative safety in the city. from Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers). To the northeast

Two earlier evacuations brokered by the UN and the Red Cross rescued some 500 people from the steel plant and elsewhere in Mariupol. Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, also said on Friday that 500 civilians had been rescued, but it was not clear if that included the previous ransom figure.

Some of the plant’s evacuees spoke to the AP about the horrors of being surrounded by death in the moldy underground bunker with little food and water, poor medical care and dwindling hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.

“People literally rot like our jackets did,” said Serhii Kuzmenko, 31, who fled with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, where 30 others were left behind. “They urgently need our help. We have to get them out.”

Fighters defending the plant said on Telegram on Friday that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the plant grounds. They said the car was moving toward civilians when it was hit by shelling, with one soldier killed and six wounded.

Moscow did not immediately acknowledge the renewed fighting there on Friday.

Russia took control of Mariupol, as well as the steel plant, after bombing it for two months. Ahead of Victory Day, which marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany, municipal workers and volunteers cleaned up what’s left of the city, which had a population of more than 400,000 before the war, but where such There are once 100,000 civilians left with little food, water, electricity or heating. . Bulldozers scooped up debris and people swept streets against a backdrop of hollowed-out buildings, workers repaired a model of a warship and Russian flags were raised on power poles.

The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight in other parts of Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the The Kremlin says that is now its main target. His capture also has symbolic value, as the city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and surprisingly fierce resistance.

Asked if Russia would soon take full control of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything.”

“It’s already devastated,” he told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank. He also said he remains open to negotiations with Russia, but reiterated that Moscow must withdraw its forces.

As they pounded the plant, Russian forces were struggling to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks after a devastating war that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country and leveled large swaths of cities.

Ukrainian officials have warned residents to be vigilant and heed warnings of air strikes, saying the risk of massive bombing has increased with the approach of Victory Day. kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said authorities would step up street patrols in the capital.

The general staff of the Ukrainian army said on Friday that its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbas and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further thwarting Putin’s ambitions after his failed attempt to seize kyiv. Russia did not immediately acknowledge those losses.

The British Defense Ministry said Russia may be struggling to execute its plan in the Donbas in part because it is bogged down at the Mariupol plant. The fighting at the plant “has come at a cost to Russia in personnel, equipment and ammunition,” he said.

The Ukrainian military also said it had made gains in the northeastern Kharkiv region, recapturing five villages and part of a sixth.

In other developments:

— A Ukrainian army brigade said it used a US Switchblade “suicide” drone against Russian forces in what was likely the first recorded use of such a weapon in Ukraine in combat.

— The Ukrainian governor of the eastern Luhansk region said residents of the city of Kreminna were being terrorized by Russian troops trying to cross the Seversky Donets River. Serhiy Haidai accused Russian troops of going through phones and “forcibly disappearing Ukrainian patriots.” His statement could not be immediately verified.

— Haidia also said more than 15,000 people remain in Severodonetsk, a city in the Luhansk region that is seen as a key Russian target. She said three people were evacuated from Severodonetsk on Friday and that he believes most residents want to stay despite “whole blocks of houses are on fire.”

— The small town of Nekhoteevk, in Russia’s southern Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, was being evacuated on Friday due to shelling from Ukrainian territory, according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov. His claims could not be immediately verified.

— Russian state agencies reported that two self-proclaimed breakaway republics in Ukraine’s industrial east, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, have appointed extraordinary ambassadors to Moscow. A Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nykolenko, said the ambassadors were “traitors” and will likely be charged with high treason.

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