Two previous evacuations negotiated by the UN and the Red Cross rescued roughly 500 people from the steel plant and elsewhere in Mariupol. Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, also said that 500 civilians had been rescued, but it wasn’t clear if that included the previous rescue figure.
Some of the plant’s evacuees spoke to the AP about the horrors of being surrounded by death in the moldy, underground bunker with little food and water, poor medical care and diminishing hope. Some said they felt guilty for leaving others behind.
“People literally rot like our jackets did,” said 31-year-old Serhii Kuzmenko, who fled along with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and four others from their bunker, where 30 others were left behind. “They need our help badly. We need to get them out.”
Fighters defending the plant said on Telegram that Russian troops fired on an evacuation vehicle on the plant’s grounds. They said the car was moving toward civilians when it was hit by shelling, and that one soldier was killed and six were wounded.
Moscow did not immediately acknowledge renewed fighting there on Friday.
Russia took control of Mariupol, aside from the steel plant, after bombarding it for two months.
Ahead of Victory Day, which marks the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany, municipal workers and volunteers cleaned up what remains of the city, which had a prewar population of over 400,000 but where perhaps 100,000 civilians remain with little food, water, electricity or heat .
Bulldozers scooped up debris and people swept streets against a backdrop of hollowed-out buildings, workers repaired a model of a warship, and Russian flags were hoisted on utility poles.
The fall of Mariupol would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that the Kremlin says is now its chief objective. Its capture also holds symbolic value since the city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war and a surprisingly fierce resistance.
Asked whether Russia would soon take full control of Mariupol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “Mariupol will never fall. I’m not talking about heroism or anything.”
“It is already devastated,” he told a meeting at London’s Chatham House think tank. He also said he remains open to negotiations with Russia, but repeated that Moscow must withdraw its forces.
While they pounded away at the plant, Russian forces struggled to make significant gains elsewhere, 10 weeks into a devastating war that has killed thousands of people, forced millions to flee the country and flattened large swaths of cities.
Ukrainian officials warned residents to be vigilant and heeded air raid warnings, saying the risk of massive shelling had increased with Victory Day approaching. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said authorities would reinforce street patrols in the capital.
The Ukrainian military’s general staff said that its forces repelled 11 attacks in the Donbas and destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, further frustrating Putin’s ambitions after his abortive attempt to seize Kyiv. Russia gave no immediate acknowledgment of those losses.
The British Defense Ministry said Russia may be struggling to execute its plan in the Donbas partly because it’s bogged down at the plant in Mariupol. The fighting at the plant “has come at personnel, equipment and munitions cost to Russia,” it said.
The Ukrainian army also said it made progress in the northeastern Kharkiv region, recapturing five villages and part of a sixth.