ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The long-awaited effort to evacuate civilians from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway Sunday, as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed she visited Ukraine’s president to show unflinching American support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression.
U.N. humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the operation to bring civilians out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being carried out with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.
Video posted online by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children bundled in winter clothing being helped as they climbed up a steep pile of debris from the plant’s rubble, and then eventually boarding a bus.
The evacuation operation drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said more than 100 civilians — primarily women and children — were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday.
“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed (humanitarian) corridor has started working,” he said in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram channel.
Later Sunday, one of the plant’s defenders said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant as soon as the evacuation of a group of civilians was completed Sunday.
Denys Shlega, the commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview Sunday night that several hundred civilians remain trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” dead bodies.
“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said. “We need one or two more rounds of evacuation.”
An aide to Mariupol’s mayor said he also had received reports of renewed shelling. “The cannonade is such that even (on the opposite side of the river) the houses are shaking,” Petro Andryushenko wrote in a Telegram post.
As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
However, the fate of the Ukrainian fighters still hunkered down in the plant was not immediately clear.
Like other evacuations, success of the mission in Mariupol depended on Russia and its forces, deployed along a long series of checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian ones.
Zaporizhzhia, a city about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, was the destination of the evacuation effort. Abreu said civilians who have been stranded for nearly two months would receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services.
Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter.
The Mariupol City Council said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin Monday morning. People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have described their vehicles being fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.
A Doctors Without Borders team was at a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, in preparation for the U.N. convoy’s arrival. Stress, exhaustion and low supplies of food were likely to have weakened the health of civilians who have been trapped underground at the plant.
Ukrainian regiment Deputy Commander Sviatoslav Palamar, meanwhile, called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians. “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed,” he said in a video posted Saturday on the regiment’s Telegram channel.
Video from inside the steel plant, shared with the AP by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands were among the fighters refusing to surrender there, showed men with blood-stained bandages, open wounds or amputated limbs, including some that appeared gangrenous. The AP could not independently verify the location and date of the video, which the women said was taken last week.
Meanwhile, Pelosi visited Kyiv on Saturday, the most senior American lawmaker to travel to the country since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. Her visit came just days after Russia launched rockets at the capital during a visit by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
During a Sunday news conference in the Polish city of Rzeszow, Pelosi said she and other members of a U.S. congressional delegation met with Zelenskyy and brought him “a message of appreciation from the American people for his leadership.”
Rep. Jason Crow, a U.S. Army veteran and a member of the House intelligence and armed services committees, said he came to Ukraine with three areas of focus: “Weapons, weapons and weapons.”
“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win. What we have seen in the last two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight and their ability to win if they have the support to do so,” the Colorado Democrat said.
In his nightly televised address Sunday, Zelenskyy said more than 350,000 people had been evacuated from combat zones thanks to humanitarian corridors pre-agreed with Moscow since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The organization of humanitarian corridors is one of the elements of the negotiation process (with Russia), which is ongoing,” he said. “It is very complex.”
In Zaporizhzhia, residents ignored air raid sirens and warnings to shelter at home to visit cemeteries Sunday, when Ukrainians observe the Orthodox Christian day of the dead.
“If our dead could rise and see this, they would say, ‘It’s not possible, they’re worse than the Germans,’” Hennadiy Bondarenko, 61, said while marking the day with his family at a picnic table among the graves. “All our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”
Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine following their failure to capture the capital, Kyiv. Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Russia’s high-stakes offensive has Ukrainian forces fighting village-by-village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling.
Ukrainian intelligence officials accused Russian forces of seizing medical facilities to treat wounded Russian soldiers in several occupied towns, as well as “destroying medical infrastructure, taking away equipment, and leaving the population without medical care.”
In a Facebook post Sunday, the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said that in Volchansk in the Kharkiv region, tuberculosis patients were “denied medical care and kicked out into the street” as facilities were seized to treat wounded Russian troops. It said four hospitals in Ukraine’s east were similarly “forced to service the needs of the Russian Federation,” claiming that Russian forces organized an ammunition depot at one facility near Zaporizhzhia, and prohibited staff from providing medical care to local residents. The AP could not immediately verify the accuracy of the claims.
Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in eastern Ukraine has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Also, both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts have suggested the offensive in the Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was going much slower than planned. So far, Russian troops and the separatists appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would focus its military strength in the east.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast armories mean Ukraine will continue to require huge amounts of support.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s offensive still could intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. Overall the Russian army has an estimated 900,000 active-duty personnel, and a much larger air force and navy.