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A long-awaited effort to evacuate people from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol has begun, the United Nations says
The news came on Sunday as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed she visited Ukraine’s President to show unflinching American support for the country’s defence against Russian aggression.
UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told The Associated Press the operation to bring people out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being done with the International Committee for the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.
As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
Mr Abreu called the situation “very complex” and would not give further details.
Like other evacuations, success of the mission in Mariupol depended on Russia and its forces, deployed along a long series of checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian ones.
The Russian Defence Ministry said a total of 46 people, a group of 25 and another numbering 21, were evacuated from areas near the Azovstal plant.
A top official with the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the steelworks, said on Saturday that 20 women and children were evacuated from the plant itself. Civilians have sheltered in a maze of underground tunnels while the plant has been under siege.
In a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel, regiment Deputy Commander Sviatoslav Palamar called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians.
“We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed,” he said.
An Associated Press journalist saw women and children arriving in Bezimenne, a village under the control of Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, accompanied by UN and Red Cross representatives. The UN has not confirmed that people were able to leave Mariupol on Saturday.
Zaporizhzhia, a city about 227km north-west of Mariupol, is the expected destination of the evacuation effort.
Zaporizhzhia was the destination of Mariupol residents who managed to flee the city on their own when previous Red Cross- and Ukraine-organised evacuations had to be called off due to ongoing shelling or concerns about route safety.
The UN said the convoy to evacuate civilians started on Friday, travelling some 230km before reaching the plant in Mariupol on Saturday morning.
People who have fled Russian-occupied areas have at times described their vehicles being fired on.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.
Russia’s high-stakes offensive in coastal southern Ukraine and the country’s eastern industrial heartland has Ukrainian forces fighting village-by-village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling as war draws near their doorsteps.
Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine following their failure to capture Kyiv.
Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Pelosi meets with Zelenskyy in major show of support
Ms Pelosi’s visit marks a major show of continuing support for the country’s struggle against Russia, amid this new stage of the war.
As the second in line to the presidency after the Vice President, she is the highest-ranking American leader to visit Ukraine since the start of the war.
Footage released early Sunday by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office showed Ms Pelosi in Kyiv with a Congressional delegation including Jason Crow, Jim McGovern and Adam Schiff.
Mr Zelenskyy greeted the delegation outdoors before they adjourned to a meeting room.
“I am grateful to you for this signal of strong support from the United States, the people, and Congress — bicameral and bipartisan support,” he said.
“This shows that the United States today is a leader in strong support for Ukraine during the war against the aggression of the Russian Federation.”
Ms Pelosi told Zelenskyy: “We believe that we are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom.”
“We are on a frontier of freedom and your fight is a fight for everyone. Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” she said.
The visit was not previously announced.