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As Russia Besiege Steel Mill, Ukraine Hopes for More Evacuations

As dozens of residents reached relative safety following weeks of bombardment that targeted the city’s final pocket of resistance, Ukrainian officials and the United Nations expressed hope for future evacuations from the bombed-out steel factory in Mariupol.

Russian forces began attacking the facility on Tuesday, where some Ukrainian fighters were still holed up, while the evacuees relished hot meals, clean clothing, and other pleasures that they had been denied while underground.

The weekend evacuation effort allowed 101 people, including women, the elderly, and 17 children, the youngest of whom was 6 months old, to emerge from the Azovstal steelworks bunkers and “see the daylight after two months,” according to Osnat Lubrani, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.

One evacuee claimed she slept at the factory every night for fear of not waking up.

“You can’t imagine how terrifying it is to sit in the bomb shelter, in a damp and wet basement, and it’s bouncing and shaking,” Elina Tsybulchenko, 54, said as she arrived in a convoy of buses and ambulances in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol.

“All of us would be done” if the bunker was struck by a bomb like the ones that produced the large holes she witnessed on the two occasions she walked outside.

Evacuees, some of whom were in tears, made their way off the buses to a tent that provided food, diapers, and internet access. Some of the evacuees looked over donated clothes racks, which included new undergarments.

For others who were left behind, the news was much worse. Russian soldiers backed by tanks stormed the enormous factory, which comprises a network of tunnels and bunkers spread out across 11 square kilometers, according to Ukrainian leaders (4 square miles).

It was unknown how many Ukrainian fighters were inside, but the Russians estimated there were around 2,000 in recent weeks, with 500 reported injured. According to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, a few hundred inhabitants remained in the area.

“We’ll do everything we can to oppose the attack,” Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, said on Telegram. “But we’re asking for urgent efforts to evacuate the residents who remain inside the facility and get them out safely.”

He went on to say that the factory was bombarded with naval gunfire and warplanes all night. According to him, two civilian ladies were murdered and ten civilians were injured.

Lubrani of the United Nations expressed optimism for more evacuations, but said none had been planned.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address that Russian military broke agreements for safe evacuations by assaulting the steel factory. He stated that the previous evacuations are “not yet a triumph, but they are already a consequence.” I feel there is yet hope for more individuals to be saved.”

Russian military shelled a chemical facility in the eastern city of Avdiivka, killing at least ten people, according to Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.

“The Russians knew just where to aim – the workers had just ended their duty and were waiting for a bus to take them home at a bus stop,” Kyrylenko said in a Telegram message. “Another cynical Russian crime on our soil.”

Explosions were also reported near the Polish border in Lviv, Ukraine’s westernmost city. According to the mayor, the attacks destroyed three power substations, shutting out electricity in portions of the city and affecting the water supply, as well as injuring two persons. Lviv has served as a transit point for NATO-supplied weaponry as well as a safe haven for refugees escaping the east’s combat.

Russian planes and artillery targeted hundreds of targets in the last day, including army strongholds, command centers, artillery positions, fuel and ammunition stores, and radar equipment, according to Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

Russians also assaulted at least a half-dozen train stations around Ukraine, according to Ukrainian authorities.

The attack on the Azovstal steelworks began over two weeks ago, after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his soldiers to close off the complex rather than storm it to finish off the defenders. During a brief cease-fire mediated by the United Nations and the Red Cross, the first — and so far only — people to be evacuated from the damaged facility got out.

Stretchers and wheelchairs were lined up at a receiving facility in Zaporizhzhia, while children’s shoes and toys awaited the caravan. On standby were medical and psychiatric teams.

As they arrived, some of the older evacuees seemed fatigued. Some of the younger folks seemed relieved, particularly moms who were consoling newborns and other little children.

“I’m really happy to be on Ukrainian land,” said a mother who only provided her first name, Anna, and arrived with two young children, ages one and nine. “To be honest, we didn’t think we’d get out of there.”

A small group of ladies put up placards in English requesting that the steel plant’s fighters be evacuated as well.

The evacuees’ arrival was a rare bit of good news in a nearly 10-week battle that has killed thousands of people, prompted millions to flee the nation, wreaked havoc on towns and cities, and changed the post-Cold War power balance in Eastern Europe.

Lubrani stated that 58 individuals joined the convoy in a settlement on the outskirts of Mariupol, in addition to the 101 persons evacuated from the steelworks. According to Lubrani, some 30 individuals who escaped the facility opted to stay in Mariupol to see if their loved ones were still alive. She claimed 127 evacuees had arrived in Zaporizhzhia.

Some of the refugees opted to stay in regions controlled by pro-Moscow rebels, according to the Russian military.

Tsybulchenko denied Russian claims that Ukrainian fighters would refuse to let people leave the factory. She said that the Ukrainian military told residents that they were free to leave but that doing so would put their lives in danger.

“We knew we wouldn’t survive, that we wouldn’t be able to get anywhere beneath these murder weapons,” she claimed.

Mariupol has become a symbol for the war’s human suffering. During Russia’s two-month siege of the vital southern port, people were besieged with little or no food, water, medication, or heat while Moscow’s soldiers pummeled the city into ruins. The outer world has been fascinated by the plant in particular.

After failing to conquer Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, Russia withdrew from the area surrounding the city and declared that the acquisition of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, known as the Donbas, was its top priority.

The city of Mariupol is located in the region, and its collapse would deprive Ukraine of a major port, enabling Russia to construct a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and free up soldiers for combat elsewhere in the Donbas.

However, the eastern push appears to have yielded only minimal advances for Russia’s soldiers and their partner separatist fighters thus far.

Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper
Brian Cooper is a global reporter for TheOptic, focusing on bringing insights and developments for global breaking news daily. With almost seven years of experience covering topics from all over the world, Brian strives to make sure you stay up-to-date with what's going on in the world.
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