The last of the Ukrainian civilians trapped in a steel plant in the port city of Mariupol have now been evacuated, according to officials.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Saturday that “all women, children and the elderly” have been brought out from underground bunkers in the vast steel mill, where they had hidden from Russian attacks with little food, water or medicine.
“This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation is over,” Vereshchuk wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
The steel mill, the final pocket of Ukrainians fighting in the devastated port city, has become a symbol of resistance to the Russian effort to capture swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine in the 10-week-old war. Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters are thought to remain inside.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a late-night address, said more than 300 civilians had been rescued from the plant and pledged to continue the “extremely difficult but essential efforts” to evacuate the trapped fighters.
“We took all civilians out of the Azovstal plant and are now preparing for the second stage of the evacuation mission to evacuate those who are wounded and medics,” he said. “Of course, we are working on evacuating our military, all the heroes who are defending Mariupol.”
He added that authorities would also help residents elsewhere in Mariupol and surrounding settlements to safety.
‘Hellish reality show’
Weeks of Russian bombardment have left Mariupol in ruins, while the steel mill has been largely destroyed. During pauses in the fighting, evacuations of civilians began last weekend, brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Russian-backed separatists have also reported a total of 176 civilians evacuated from the plant. It was not clear if civilian men were still there.
Russian forces, backed by tanks and artillery, tried again on Saturday to storm Azovstal, seeking to dislodge the last Ukrainian defenders, according to Ukraine’s military command.
But fighters in the plant have pledged not to surrender and officials in Kyiv fear Russian forces want to wipe them out by Monday when Moscow commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the second world war.
Ukraine’s government issued a statement following the end of the civilian evacuation, calling on Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to rescue the trapped soldiers, saying they have been under “ongoing shelling and attacks by the Russian army” for 72 days in a row.
“Now, there is a lack of medicines, water and food, wounded soldiers are dying because of gangrene and sepsis.”
One commander still in Azovstal wrote on Facebook that his troops could now only hope for a miracle and “that a higher power finds a way to figure out our rescue”.
“It feels like I’ve landed in a hellish reality show in which us soldiers fight for our lives and the whole world watches this interesting episode,” said Serhiy Volinski, commander of the 36th marine infantry brigade.
“Pain, suffering, hunger, misery, tears, fears, death. It’s all real,” he added, posting a picture of himself in which he was unshaven, bleary-eyed and seemed to have an injured nose.
Russia has given no indication it will allow the evacuation of the trapped soldiers.
The Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian military unit, said three Ukrainian fighters had been killed and six more were wounded during an evacuation attempt on Friday. Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the battalion, said his troops had waved white flags and accused Russian forces of firing an anti-tank weapon at a vehicle.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared victory in Mariupol on April 21, ordered the plant sealed off, and called for Ukrainian forces inside to disarm.
Mariupol, which lies between the Crimean Peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014 and parts of eastern Ukraine taken by Russia-backed separatists that year, is key to linking the two Russian-held territories and blocking Ukrainian exports.
In Washington, DC, US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said Putin is convinced that “doubling down” on the conflict will improve the outcome for Russia.
“He’s in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose,” Burns said at a Financial Times event.
Moscow calls its actions since February 24 a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West.
Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war.