All women, children and elderly civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said on Saturday, despite what military officers said was an ongoing Russian assault at the plant.
"This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation is over," Ukraine's deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
The Soviet-era steel mill, the last holdout in Mariupol for Ukrainian forces, has emerged as a symbol of resistance to the wider Russian effort to capture swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine in the 10-week-old war.
Under heavy bombardment, fighters and civilians have been trapped for weeks in deep bunkers and tunnels that criss-cross the site, with little food, water or medicine.
Russian forces backed by tanks and artillery tried again on Saturday to storm Azovstal, Ukraine's military command said, part of a ferocious assault to dislodge the last Ukrainian defenders in the strategic port city on the Azov Sea.
Mariupol has been left in ruins by weeks of Russian bombardment and the steel mill has been largely destroyed. Several groups of civilians have left the sprawling complex over the past week during pauses in fighting.
Earlier on Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk region as saying that 50 more people had been evacuated from the besieged steelworks.
However, by 4pm, Reuters journalists had not seen any sign of their arrival at a reception centre in separatist-controlled territory near Mariupol.
The separatists said a total of 176 civilians had now been evacuated from the plant.
Evacuations of civilians from the Azovstal plant – brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – began last weekend. But they were halted during the week by renewed fighting.
The city’s mayor estimated earlier this week that 200 civilians were trapped at the plant.
It was not clear after the deputy prime minister’s statement on Saturday if civilian men were still in the complex.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late-night video address on Friday that Ukraine was also working on a diplomatic effort to save fighters barricaded inside the steel works. It was unclear how many fighters remained there.
The fighters have vowed not to surrender. Ukrainian officials fear Russian forces want to wipe them out by Monday, in time for Moscow's commemorations of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in the second World War.
Russian president Vladimir Putin declared victory in Mariupol on April 21st, ordered the plant sealed off and called for Ukrainian forces inside to disarm. But Russia later resumed its assault on the plant.
Asked about plans for Russia to mark Monday's anniversary in parts of Ukraine it holds, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday "The time will come to mark victory day in Mariupol."
Battle for the east
Moscow calls its actions since February 24th a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of what it calls anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war.
Mariupol, which lies between the Crimea peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014 and parts of eastern Ukraine taken by Russia-backed separatists that year, is key to linking up the two Russian-held territories and blocking Ukrainian exports.
Ukraine’s general staff said on Saturday the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine aimed to establish full control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and maintain the land corridor between these territories and Crimea.
Russian forces also shelled settlements in the northeast, near Ukraine's second largest city Kharkiv. The attacks blew up three road bridges in order to slow down counter-offensive actions by the Ukrainian forces, the general staff said.
However, Russian forces lost control of the village of Tsyrkuny in Kharkiv region, the military command said.
Russia's defence ministry said it destroyed a large stockpile of military equipment from the United States and European countries near the Bohodukhiv railway station in the Kharkiv region.
Russian forces had hit 18 Ukrainian military facilities overnight, including three ammunition depots in Dachne, near the southern port city of Odesa, the ministry said.
Ukraine forces on Saturday released footage they said showed drone strikes on a Russian landing craft vessel and a building that housed missiles on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, a speck of land south of Odesa. It did not say when the strike happened.
Air-launched Russian missiles hit two locations near the Russian border in Ukraine’s northern Sumy region on Saturday, local governor Dmytro Zhyvytskyi said.
Reuters could not independently verify either side’s statements about battlefield events.
Drone strikes in Moldova
Russia’s lower house of parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin on Saturday accused Washington of co-ordinating military operations in Ukraine, which he said amounted to direct US involvement in military action against Russia.
US officials have said the United States has provided intelligence to Ukraine to help counter the Russian assault, but have denied this intelligence includes precise targeting data.
Since the start of the invasion, Washington and European members of the transatlantic Nato alliance have supplied Kyiv with heavy weapons to help it resist Russia, and Western powers have also imposed deep sanctions on Moscow.
However, the United States and its Nato allies have repeatedly said they will not take part in fighting themselves, in order to avoid becoming parties to the conflict.
A senior Russian commander said last month Russia planned to take full control of southern Ukraine and this would improve Russian access to Transdniestria, a breakaway region of Moldova.
Pro-Russian separatists in Moldova said on Saturday that Transdniestria was hit four times by suspected drones overnight near the Ukrainian border. Nearly two weeks of similar reported incidents in Transdniestria have raised international alarm that the Ukraine war could spread over the frontier.
Ukraine has repeatedly denied any blame for the incidents, saying it believes Russia is staging the attacks to provoke war. Moscow, too, has denied blame. – Reuters