ZAPORIZHZHIA (UA) -- The first group of civilians held captive for several weeks in a Mariupol steel plant was under Russian siege. They were expected to reach a Ukrainian-controlled town on Monday as a new attempt was made to allow those sheltering in the city to flee.
A video posted by Ukrainian forces online on Sunday showed elderly mothers and small children climbing over rubble from Azovstal's sprawling steel plant before finally boarding a bus.
If successful, the evacuation would be a rare step towards easing the human costs of the nearly 10-week-old war that has caused so much suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to create safe passageways from the port city at the Sea of Azov or other locations have failed. In the past, people fleeing Russian-occupied territories claimed that their vehicles were shot at. Ukrainian officials repeatedly accuse Russian forces of bombarding evacuation routes agreed upon.
At least some of those evacuated from the plant were taken to a village under the control of Moscow-backed separatists. However, Russian state media reported that they would be permitted to go on to Ukrainian-held territory if necessary. In the past, Ukrainian officials had accused Moscow's troops for forcing civilians to be relocated from territories they have taken to Russia. Moscow claims that the people wanted to travel to Russia.
According to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, more than 100 civilians are expected to arrive in Zaporizhzhia Monday.
Zelenskyy stated in a recorded address that "Today, the first time in all of the days war", the vitally needed green corridor had started working.
Although official evacuations often fail, many people have been able to flee Mariupol on their own. Anastasiia Dembotska, her nephew, and daughter used the short cease-fire surrounding the evacuation of civilians from the steel mill to flee with her dog, niece, and daughter.
According to The Associated Press, she was able to see the steel plant from her windows when she dares to look outside.
She said that she could see "the rockets flying" as well as clouds of smoke above the plant.
She claimed that she had to go through many checkpoints along the way to Zaporizhzhia, and that she waited for 18 hours in the vicinity of the city before being permitted to cross.
Dembytska, like many Mariupol residents survived by using a makeshift stove to cook and drinking water from a well under almost constant bombardment.
Vladyslava, her 14-year old daughter, said that she was afraid at first but then got used to it.
According to a defender of the steel plant, Russian forces began shelling the plant on Sunday after civilians had been evacuated.
Commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard Denys Shlega said Sunday night in a televised interview that hundreds of civilians were still trapped along with nearly 500 wounded soldiers, and "numerous" bodies.
Shlega stated that "dozens of small children are still in bunkers beneath the plant."
Mariupol could still have 100,000 inhabitants, with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters living beneath the sprawling Soviet-era steel plant. This is the only area of the city that was not occupied in the Russian occupation.
Since the beginning of the war, Mariupol has been under siege. This has left civilians without access to water, food, or medicine. A Russian airstrike struck a maternity center early in the conflict. Hundreds of people were killed when a theater was bombed.
This city, with a population of over 400,000 before war, is a major Russian target. It would be a deprive Ukraine a crucial port and allow Moscow to establish an air corridor to the Crimean Peninsula. Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
An officer from Ukraine was at the steel plant and urged organizations like the U.N. or the Red Cross to ensure that wounded fighters were evacuated, even though he admitted that it is difficult to reach some of them.
Saviano Abreu, U.N. humanitarian spokesperson, said that civilians who arrive in Zaporizhzhia (about 140 miles (230 km) northwest of Mariupol would receive immediate support, including psychological services. At the reception center for people displaced in the city, a Doctors Without Borders team waited for the U.N. convoy.
Zelenskyy, who was addressing the nation Sunday night, accused Moscow of "a war for extermination." He claimed that Russian shelling had struck food, grain, fertilizer warehouses and residential areas in Kharkiv and the Donbas.
He said that more than 350,000 people were evacuated from conflict zones by humanitarian corridors agreed with Moscow.
Residents of Zaporizhzhia ignored the sirens of air raid sirens and went to cemeteries on Sunday. This was the Orthodox Christian Day of the Dead.
Hennadiy bondarenko, 61, stated that if our dead could see this, they would be unable to believe it. He was marking the occasion with his family at a picnic table amid the graves. "All our dead, including the Cossacks, would join the fighting."
After failing to capture Kyiv, Russian forces launched a major military operation in the Donbas to seize Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.
It is difficult to capture a complete picture of the battle in eastern Ukraine. Reporters are not allowed to leave the fighting zone, as it is dangerous and unsafe for them. Both sides have placed restrictions on their reporting.
Officials in Western countries claim that Russia is moving slowly in its east offensive, and has taken some villages. However, it is inflicting large civilian casualties by indiscriminate bombardment. While Ukrainian forces fight their offensive village by village, civilians flee artillery shelling and airstrikes,
In a briefing Monday, the British Defense Ministry stated that more than 25% of the fighting units Russia deployed in Ukraine are "combat ineffective", meaning they cannot fight due to loss of equipment or troops.
According to the British military, Russia has committed more than 120 "battalion tactical units" into war since February. This represents 65% of Moscow's total combat strength.
Ukraine's military claimed Monday that it had destroyed two small Russian patrol vessels in the Black Sea. Drone footage uploaded online showed two Russian Raptor boats that exploded after being hit by missiles.
The strikes were not confirmed by the Associated Press immediately.
While hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid in military aid to Ukraine, the vast armies of Russia mean that Ukraine still requires massive support. Zelenskyy appealed to NATO for more weapons and stronger economic sanctions against Russia.
Nancy Pelosi, the US House Speaker, and other U.S. legislators visited Zelenskyy Saturday to show their support.
Monday's meeting of European Union energy ministers was to discuss a new set sanctions. This could include restrictions on Russian oil. However, Russia-dependent countries of the 27-nation bloc such as Hungary and Slovakia are cautious about taking harsh action.
Varenytsia reported in Kyiv (Ukraine). This report was contributed by Associated Press journalists Yesica Fisch, Jon Gambrell, and Yuras Karamanau in Lviv. Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv and other AP staff worldwide.