Ukrainian forces fought village by village on Saturday to contain a Russian advance through the east of the country, while the United Nations worked to broker the evacuation of civilians from the last Ukrainian stronghold in the bombed ruins of the port city of Mariupol.
An estimated 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and as many as 1,000 are living under a sprawling Soviet-era steel mill, according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine did not say how many fighters are also at the factory, the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces, but the Russians estimate the number at around 2,000.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russian planes had continued to launch attacks on Mariupol, focusing on the Azovstal steelworks.
Meanwhile, Russian state news agencies reported that 25 civilians were evacuated from the steelworks, although there was no confirmation from the UN. Russian news agency RIA Novosti said 19 adults and six children had been evacuated from the factory, but gave no further details.
A senior official with the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the plant, said 20 civilians were evacuated during a ceasefire, although it was unclear whether he was referring to the same group as Russian news.
“It’s women and children,” Sviatoslav Palamar said in a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel. He also called for the evacuation of the wounded: “We don’t know why they are not taken and their evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled territory is not being discussed.”
Videos and footage from inside the factory, shared with the Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands are among the fighters who refuse to surrender there, showed unidentified wounded men with stained bandages needing to be changed; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.
Treatment of wounded in the steel mill
A skeletal medical team was treating at least 600 wounded, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard. The regiment is a far-right armed group that was incorporated into the country’s national guard after the first invasion of Russia in 2014.
In the video shared by the women, the injured men tell the camera that they eat once a day and share only 1.5 liters of water a day between four people. Supplies inside the besieged facility are depleted, they said.
A shirtless man spoke in obvious pain as he described his injuries: two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a dislocated arm that “was dangling from the flesh”.
“I want to say to everyone who sees this: if you don’t stop it here, in Ukraine, go further, in Europe,” he said.
The AP could not independently verify the date and location of the filming, which the women said took place last week in the maze of passages under the steel mill.
The women called for the Ukrainian fighters to also be evacuated along with the civilians, warning that they could be tortured and executed if captured. “Soldiers’ lives also matter,” Yuliia Fedusiuk told AP in Rome.
The Soviet-era steel mill has a vast underground network of bunkers capable of withstanding air strikes. But the situation became more dire after the Russians dropped “bunker busters” and other bombs.
Mariupol city officials described dire shortages of food, water and medicine. UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the world organization was negotiating with officials in Moscow and Kiev but could not provide details of the ongoing evacuation effort “because of the complexity and fluidity of the operation”.
“There are, at this point in time, ongoing high-level commitments with all governments, Russia and Ukraine, to ensure that you can save civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant,” Abreu told the Associated Press. He did not confirm the video posted on social media that claimed to show UN-branded vehicles in Mariupol.
Ukraine has blamed the failure of several previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian bombing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV that the real problem is that “humanitarian corridors are being ignored by Ukrainian ultranationals”. Moscow has repeatedly claimed that right-wing Ukrainians are thwarting evacuation efforts and using civilians as human shields.
In other developments:
- Actress Angelina Jolie paid a private visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, where she was spotted in a cafe talking to people at the city’s central train station. Jolie is a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but an agency spokesperson denied that she was in town on official UN business.
- The bodies of three men were found buried in a forest not far from the Kiev suburb of Bucha, said the head of Kiev’s regional police force. The men, whose bodies were found on Friday, were tortured before being shot in the head, Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian officials alleged that retreating Russian troops carried out mass killings of civilians in Bucha.
- A Russian rocket attack destroyed the runway at the airport in Odesa, Ukraine’s third most populous city and a major Black Sea port, the Ukrainian army said. Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported that “several” explosions were heard in Odesa on Saturday, prompting local authorities to advise residents to take shelter there.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators speak “almost every day”. However, he told Chinese state news agency Xinhua that “progress has not been easy”.
- Two buses that were evacuating residents of the eastern Ukrainian city of Popasna were targeted and contact with organizers was lost, said Mayor Nikolai Khanatov.
- Russian forces stole “several hundred thousand tons” of grain in the areas of Ukraine they occupy, Ukraine’s Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotskiy said on Saturday.
- Ukraine held a prisoner exchange with Russia on Saturday, with seven soldiers and seven civilians returning home, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in an online post. One of the soldiers was a woman five months pregnant, she added. She did not say how many Russians were transferred.
Only small gains for Russia
Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in the east has been difficult because air strikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have introduced strict restrictions on combat zone reporting.
But Western military analysts suggested that Moscow’s offensive in the eastern Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was proceeding much slower than planned. So far, Russian troops and Moscow-backed separatist forces appeared to have made only small gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military force in eastern Ukraine.
Numerically, Russia’s military strength far exceeds that of Ukraine. In the days leading up to the start of the war, Western intelligence estimated that Russia had deployed up to 190,000 troops near the border; The standing army of Ukraine is about 200,000, spread across the country.
In part because of the strength of the Ukrainian resistance, the United States believes the Russians are “at least several days behind where they wanted to be” as they try to encircle Ukrainian troops in the east, said the top US defense official, who spoke about condition of anonymity to discuss the assessment of the US military.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s promised offensive could still intensify and invade the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has around 900,000 active soldiers. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy than Ukraine.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance have flowed into Ukraine since the start of the war, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine’s needs are almost inexhaustible.
“We need an unlimited number of weapons,” said Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk.
In his nightly video speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of trying to destroy the Donbas and all who live there.
The constant attacks “show that Russia wants to empty this territory of all people,” he said.
“If the Russian invaders are able to carry out their plans, even partially, they will have enough artillery and aircraft to turn the entire Donbas to stone, as they did with Mariupol.”
Meanwhile, lines formed at gas stations in Kiev, Dnipro and other cities as Ukraine faced fuel shortages as Russia destroyed its fuel infrastructure and blocked ports, Zelensky said. He said “there are no immediate solutions” to the shortage, but he expects the situation to improve in the next week or two.