Helpers prepare stretchers and toys for Mariupol evacuees

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Aid workers on Tuesday prepared hot food, wheelchairs and toys for civilians slowly making their way to relative safety from the pulverized remains of a steel mill in the city of Mariupol, which has been under siege by Russian forces for months.

The plant is the Ukrainian resistance’s last stronghold in a city otherwise controlled by Moscow’s forces and is key to their campaign in eastern Ukraine. A senior US official has warned that Russia plans to annex much of the east of the country later this month.

At a reception center, stretchers and wheelchairs were lined up, tiny children’s shoes dangled from a shopping cart, and a pile of toys awaited the first convoy of civilians whose evacuation is being overseen by the United Nations and the Red Cross.

Their arrival would represent a rare glimmer of good news in the nearly 10-week war sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country, devastated cities and towns and struck the balance after the Cold War has shifted power in Eastern Europe.

More than 100 people – including elderly women and mothers with young children – left the rubble-strewn Azovstal Steel Plant in Mariupol over the weekend, making their way in buses and ambulances.

At least some were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The Russian military said some chose to remain in separatist areas. In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow’s troops of taking civilians into Russia or Russian-controlled areas against their will — something the Kremlin denies.

Others moved to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhia, about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol. It was not clear why the evacuees’ journey took so long, but the convoy likely had to pass through heavily contested areas and many checkpoints.

Mariupol has become a symbol of the human misery caused by the war. A Russian siege left civilians with little access to food, water and electricity while Moscow’s forces reduced the city to rubble. The facility, where about 1,000 civilians took refuge along with about 2,000 militants who refused to surrender, has particularly intrigued the outside world.

Deputy Mayor of Mariupol Sergei Orlov told the BBC that high-level negotiations between Ukraine, Russia and international organizations are under way to evacuate more people. But Russia resumed its aerial, tank and ship bombardment of the sprawling complex after the partial evacuation, Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, whose fighters holed up in the mill, said on the Telegram messaging app on Monday.

After Russia failed to capture Kyiv in the first weeks of the war, it withdrew some of its forces and shifted its focus to Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, the Donbass. Mariupol is in the region, and its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it captured from Ukraine in 2014, and free troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass.

Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Monday the US believes the Kremlin plans to annex much of eastern Ukraine and recognize the southern city of Kherson as an independent republic. Neither move would be recognized by the United States or its allies, he said.

Russia plans to hold mock referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbass that “would try to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy” and tie the entities to Russia, Carpenter said. He also said there were signs that Russia would hold an independence vote in Kherson.

Mayors and local lawmakers have been kidnapped there, internet and cell phone services have been disrupted and a Russian school curriculum will soon be introduced, Carpenter said. The Ukrainian government says Russia has adopted its ruble as its currency there.

It has been difficult to get a full picture of the unfolding battle to the east, as airstrikes and artillery fire have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move about. Both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have imposed severe restrictions on reporting.

But so far, Russian forces and their separatist allies appear to have made little gains, capturing several small towns while attempting to advance in relatively small groups against steadfast Ukrainian resistance.

In its daily Twitter declaration of war on Tuesday, the British military said it believed Russia’s military was now “significantly weaker” after suffering casualties in its war against Ukraine.

“Recovery from this will be exacerbated by sanctions,” the ministry said. “Failures in both strategic planning and operational execution have left it unable to convert strength of numbers into a critical advantage.”

Western arms and other aid have strengthened Ukraine’s resistance significantly, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to announce hundreds of millions of pounds in new military support for Kyiv in a speech to Ukraine’s parliament on Tuesday.

In the removed speech, he is said to echo the words of World War II British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in describing Ukraine’s defiant response to the Russian invasion as the country’s “finest hour”.

On Monday, Ukraine said Russia had attacked a strategic road and rail bridge west of Odessa, a major Black Sea port. The bridge was badly damaged in previous Russian attacks, and its destruction would cut off a supply route for weapons and other cargo from neighboring Romania.

A satellite image captured by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by The Associated Press showed the bridge was still standing as of midday Monday.

Another picture taken on Monday showed nearly 50 Russian military helicopters at Stary Oskol, a Russian base near the Ukrainian border and about 175 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Highlighting the toll of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday that at least 220 Ukrainian children have been killed by the Russian army and 1,570 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged since the war began. He also noted that some people trying to escape the fighting fear being taken to Russia or Russian-controlled areas.

More than a million people, including nearly 200,000 children, have been brought to Russia from Ukraine, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday, according to the state news agency TASS. Defense Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev said the number in the previous 24 hours was 11,550 people “without the involvement of the Ukrainian authorities”.

Zelenskyi said the UN had given him assurances that people fleeing Mariupol would be allowed to go to areas his government controls.

Apart from the official evacuations, some Mariupol residents have left on their own, often in damaged private cars.

As sunset approached on Monday, Yaroslav Dmytryshyn from Mariupol rattled in a car with a back seat full of teenagers and two signs on the rear window: “Children” and “Little ones.”

“I can’t believe we survived,” he said, looking exhausted but in good spirits after two days on the road.

“There is no Mariupol at all,” he said. “Someone has to rebuild it, and that will take millions of tons of gold.”


Associated Press journalists Inna Varenytsia and David Keyton in Kyiv, Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staffers around the world contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

https://abc13.com/russia-ukraine-war-mariupol-steel-plant/11813714/ Helpers prepare stretchers and toys for Mariupol evacuees

Dais Johnston

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