Diplomatic efforts are underway to evacuate the remaining civilians and soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
Rescuers sought to get more civilians out on Saturday, following a week of on-and-off convoys to try to save residents of Mariupol. It was unclear if any evacuations were successful, after a group of 50 civilians, including children, were able to leave the plant Friday in an operation coordinated by the UN and the Red Cross.
A total of 176 civilians had now been evacuated from the steelworks, according to the territorial defense headquarters of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). That figure could not be verified by Western media. International authorities said about 500 people have escaped Mariupol in the past few days.
Zelensky said his government was “working on diplomatic options to save our military who still remain at Azovstal.”
“Influential mediators are involved,” he added.
Scores of civilians took shelter in the sprawling seaside steel mill as Russian forces shelled the city into oblivion over the past 10 weeks. Some estimates said as many as 200 civilians could still be sheltering at the plant with little food, water or medicine, while 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers could still be fighting at the plant.
“We hope that soon they will be able to arrive in a safe area after two months of shelling, just underground,” Zelensky said.
New satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press showed vast devastation at the plant, which is the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the city. Multiple buildings, including one under which hundreds of fighters and civilians are likely hiding, had gaping holes in the roof, according to the images shot Friday by Planet Labs PBC.
Donbas Today, which claims to cover events on both sides, tweeted that a group of Ukrainian soldiers had left the plant carrying white flags of surrender, a report that was not verified by any international media.
Securing the strategically important Sea of Azov port would give Moscow a land bridge to the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine during a 2014 invasion.
The negotiations over evacuations come as Moscow prepares for Victory Day, one of Russia’s most popular holidays. President Vladimir Putin and his allies are expected to portray the invasion of Ukraine as a new fight against fascism, the BBC reported, accusing the Ukrainian government of neo-Nazi links – allegations that Kyiv and Western allies deny.
Russians left nothing about Monday’s spectacle, expected to feature some 11,000 troops, to chance: a dress rehearsal for the parade was held on Saturday, complete with a flyover of fighter jets forming the “Z” symbol that has come to stand for Russia’s forces attacking Ukraine, The Sun reported.
The parade will feature representatives of myriad military units and will include a display of nuclear weapons, though The Sun reported that it will be a scaled-back version of prior parades, possibly cut down to a third of its prior size.
“These symbolic dates are to the Russian aggressor like red to a bull,” said Ukraine’s first deputy interior minister, Yevhen Yenin. “While the entire civilized world remembers the victims of terrible wars on these days, the Russian Federation wants parades and is preparing to dance over bones in Mariupol.”
The holiday was on the mind of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, which tweeted a video showing the destruction of another Russian ship, this time a landing craft of the “Serna” project. “The traditional parade of the Russian Black Sea fleet on May 9 this year will be held near Snake Island – at the bottom of the sea,” the post said.
Satellite photos analyzed by the AP showed thick black smoke rising off Snake Island, which is about 20 miles off the coast of Ukraine.
Separately, in Germany, law enforcement officials warned residents who attend the Victory Day parade in Berlin not to bring Ukrainian or Russian flags. Berlin authorities said they did not wish the discord of their European neighbors to impact the politics of their country on the 77th anniversary of the end of the war, Fox News reported.
In other developments:
- Russia continued to bombard other cities, including landing several missile strikes on Odessa in Southern Ukraine.
- The governor of the Kharkiv region reported a missile strike on the museum honoring the “Ukrainian Socrates,” Hryhoriy Skovoroda, an 18th-century philosopher whose likeness adorns a Ukrainian banknote. The museum’s contents had been moved to safety but the building, where Skovoroda spent his final years, was badly damaged.
- Intense fighting continued in eastern Ukraine, where the two sides battled to capture territory. Western military analysts said a Ukrainian counter-offensive was advancing around the northeastern city of Kharkiv, which was the first Soviet capital in Ukraine, while the Russians made minor gains in Luhansk, an area where Moscow-backed separatists have fought since 2014.
Zelensky said in his nightly address that the “extraordinary strength of the Ukrainian position” lies in all the countries of the free world understanding what is at stake in the ruinous war
.“We are defending ourselves against an onslaught of tyranny that wants to destroy everything that freedom gives to people and states,” the Ukrainian leader said. “And such a struggle, for freedom and against tyranny, is fully comprehensible for any society, in any corner of the globe.”
With Post wires