Around 100 civilians evacuated from the ruined Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol were due to arrive in a Ukrainian-held city on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a surprise visit to Kyiv.
The strategic port city on the Azov Sea has endured the most destructive siege of the war with Russia – now in its third month – with Pope Francis, in an implicit criticism of Moscow, telling thousands of people in St Peter's Square on Sunday it had been "barbarously bombarded"."
For the first time, we had two days of a ceasefire on this territory, and we managed to take out more than 100 civilians – women, children," Zelenskyy said in a nightly video address.
The first evacuees would arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday morning, he said, after the UN confirmed a "safe passage operation" was in progress since Saturday following a deal to ease the ordeal of the most destructive siege of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said hundreds of civilians remain trapped in the steelworks, a vast Soviet-era complex with a network of bunkers and tunnels.
"The situation has become a sign of a real humanitarian catastrophe, because people are running out of water, food and medicine,” Vereshchuk said on Telegram late on Sunday.
Footage from inside the steelworks showed members of the Azov regiment helping civilians though rubble and onto a bus. One older evacuee accompanied by young children said survivors were fast running out of food.
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The civilians came on buses in a convoy with UN and Russian military vehicles at the village of Bezimenne, around 30 km (18 miles) east of Mariupol, where a row of light blue tents had been set up.
A plan to evacuate civilians from areas of the devastated city outside the steelworks had been postponed to Monday morning, Mariupol's city council said.
Young children were among those evacuated from the plant – where people cowered underground, huddling together under blankets in the plant's bunkers and tunnels as the shelling tore their city apart.
The siege of Mariupol, in which Russian forces have pummeled the port city for nearly two months, has turned into a wasteland with an unknown death toll and thousands trying to survive without water, sanitation or food.
The city is under Russian control but some fighters and civilians sheltered underground in the Azovstal works – a vast Soviet-era plant founded under Josef Stalin and designed with a labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels to withstand attack.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said after meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Thursday that intense discussions were under way to enable the evacuation of Azovstal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the "special military operation" is necessary because the United States was using Ukraine to threaten Russia and Moscow had to defend Russian-speakers against persecution.
He says Ukraine and Russia are essentially one country. Ukraine says it is fighting an imperialist land grab by Russia and that Putin's claims of genocide are nonsense.