Evacuations begin at Mariupol factory as shelling in the east continues

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Some civilians were finally evacuated from a major steel mill in Mariupol after a ceasefire on Saturday allowed a small group to leave the besieged complex, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discounted much progress in broader talks.

Authorities believe up to 1,000 people have sought refuge in the large Azovstal complex, which has been under attack for days amid Russian attacks. New satellite images show many buildings in the complex razed and roofs destroyed.

On Saturday, a group of 20 to 25 women and children were evacuated, according to the deputy commander of a Ukrainian regiment and the official Russian news agency Tass. But it is unclear whether hundreds more civilians and soldiers will be able to leave, as negotiations between Russia and Ukraine look even more complicated.

Vladimir Yermakov, head of nuclear non-proliferation at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Tass that a “return to dialogue with the United States on strategic stability will only be possible after finishing the work of the Russian special operation in Ukraine”, using the Moscow term for their invasion. from Ukraine. He described the dialogue as “frozen”.

He also accused the US of using the “Kiev regime as a unique disposable tool for its own purposes against Russia”.

US officials, however, do not see much change in the status quo. They said they found it difficult to see a clear path ahead to resume diplomatic talks with Russia on a range of issues, especially after the invasion began.

On Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby told reporters that the United States was comfortable with the strategic nuclear deterrent posture in place. But the government was closely monitoring Russia’s messages and actions, given the severity of the problem.

“We urge Russia to stop ramping up the rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons and do the right thing. End the war today. Get your troops out of Ukraine, sit in good faith with President Zelensky and do the right thing,” Kirby said.

On the front lines, Russian forces made little progress in advancing into eastern Ukraine, where they reinforced their troops. The Ukrainian military claimed to have regained control of four villages in the Kharkiv region on Saturday, saying Russian troops were “not succeeding” in plans to quickly take control of vast swaths of territory in the east.

Western military analysis also said Moscow is still struggling with morale and supply concerns despite a new focus on the eastern Donbas region. The Pentagon described only “slow progress” after fierce Ukrainian resistance.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Zelensky on Saturday to offer continued support. A statement from Johnson’s office said the prime minister was “more committed than ever to bolstering Ukraine and ensuring that Putin fails” and that Britain “will continue to provide additional military aid to give Ukrainians the necessary equipment to defend yourself”.

Russian forces are pushing for an offensive in Donbas, which spans parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and borders Russia. The governor of Luhansk said on Saturday that the bombing had damaged dozens of homes in recent days.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said troops had repelled more than a dozen attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk in the past 24 hours. He said earlier this week that Russian forces had captured some urban settlements as they sought to expand their control over the two provinces that make up the eastern region of Donbass.

Local officials said earlier this week that damage to infrastructure had left many residents without electricity or water.

As the death toll continues to rise, Zelensky said Ukraine will conduct a census to assess the number of civilians who have died or disappeared since Russia’s invasion. More than 7,000 people were reported to Ukrainian police as missing in nearly two months of war. Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said on Friday that half of the cases were still unresolved. He called on supporting nations to send forensic experts and others to help.

Further missile attacks continued across the country, and an attack in Odessa left the city’s airport unusable. The city’s official Telegram account said the track was damaged and that “its further use is impossible”.

Odessa is a strategically important Black Sea port for Ukraine, making it a major target for Russian forces. Moscow troops, however, were unable to approach the city, sparing it the frequency of attacks in many other areas.

The Ukrainian Red Cross also said its office in Dobropillia, in eastern Donetsk region, was bombed on Saturday. In a post on Twitter, the organization said eight of its offices in Ukraine had been damaged or destroyed since the invasion two months ago.

Even with hopes that more civilians might leave the Azovstal steelworks, the attacks left untold damage. Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, a nationalist group that is part of the Ukrainian National Guard, told CNN that “there are basements and bunkers that we cannot reach because they are under rubble.”

“We don’t know if people are alive or not. There are children from four months to 16 years old. But there are people stuck in places you can’t get to,” Palamar said.

The situation in the plant’s bunkers has become increasingly dire as supplies of food and water dwindle. While Ukrainian authorities demand that humanitarian corridors remain intact to get people to safety, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that he sees no need for evacuation routes.

Palamar said that while the ceasefire began several hours late, it was carried out on Saturday morning.

Earlier on Saturday, one of the Ukrainian fighters said that Ukrainian and Russian forces had stopped fighting “since the morning”.

“Right now, we have a ceasefire regime – neither side is shooting,” Mykhailo Vershynin, head of the Donetsk regional patrol police, told The Washington Post. “All these actions are directly linked to the possibility of being able to transport people out of here.”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is exploring ways to bring certain Russian workers to the United States. The aim is to waive some visa restrictions for Russians in high-tech sectors, such as those with a background in cybersecurity, nuclear engineering and artificial intelligence. In the long term, the intention would be to weaken Russia’s workforce and productivity.

This kind of coup would exacerbate an already bleak economic picture in Russia. The country’s central bank projected the national economy would shrink by 8 to 10 percent this year as the country grapples with international sanctions that have disrupted trade and froze billions of dollars in reserves. In a statement on Friday, the central bank said it had cut its key interest rate to 14% and described a further reduction in rates in 2022 as a possibility.

“The current situation is extremely uncertain,” central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina told Reuters during a news conference on Friday. It ruled out a sovereign default, although it acknowledged “payment difficulties”, according to Russian news agency Tass. “I hope this all ends successfully,” she said.

Lavrov claimed the two sides were talking about lifting sanctions as part of the talks in an interview with Chinese state media Xinhua.

“The issues of denationalization, recognition of new geopolitical realities, lifting of sanctions, status of the Russian language and others are also on the agenda,” said Lavrov.

But Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Zelensky and a member of the negotiating team, called Lavrov’s comments “surprising.”

“The issue of global international sanctions against Russia is not discussed within the framework of the negotiation process,” Podoliak said, according to the Interfax Ukraine news agency. “The reason for its introduction by the world community has not yet been eliminated; this is the occupation of part of the territory of Ukraine and the treacherous violation of our territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Economic uncertainty had repercussions throughout the conflict, particularly with regard to energy stability. Kiev city officials on Friday urged residents to stop driving private vehicles to conserve Ukraine’s limited supply of fuel for troops fighting the Russian invasion.

Zelensky acknowledged Ukraine’s fuel shortages in a speech late Friday and said his government would create a “fuel supply system” within two weeks to alleviate the problem, “no matter how difficult.”

“Queues and price increases at gas stations are seen in many regions of our country,” he said.

Actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie was spotted in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, attracting media attention. Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytskyi wrote on Telegram that Jolie spent time visiting children and with volunteers at a medical center. Photos posted by Kozytskyi show Jolie spending time with children at a boarding school and volunteers at the medical facility. A video shows her playing with a young woman.

“For all of us, this visit was a surprise,” Kozytskyi wrote. “Many people who saw Ms. Jolie in the Lviv region could not believe it was really her.”

Lviv, which has only suffered sporadic attacks from Russia, has become a haven for civilians, diplomats, journalists and aid groups because of its relative security and proximity to the Polish border. Jolie is the UN’s special envoy for refugees, but a spokeswoman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told The Washington Post in an email that Jolie was traveling to the area “in her personal capacity”.

Karen DeYoung, Timothy Bella, Nick Parker, Marisa Iati and Ellen Francis contributed to this report.

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