The United Nations confirmed ‘a safe passage operation’ is under way at the Azovstal steel plant to rescue civilians trapped by fighting.
Around 100 civilians have been evacuated from the besieged steel plant in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, after the United Nations and the International Red Cross brokered a deal to extract non-combatants from the site of the most destructive siege of the war in Ukraine.
A first group of 100 evacuees will arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted on Sunday.
Ukraine is working with the UN to evacuate other civilians from the Azovstal steel plant, he said.
“The operation is [still] ongoing,” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a video address.
Russia’s defence ministry gave a lower figure of 80 civilians evacuated from the Azovstal plant, adding: “Those who wished to leave for areas controlled by the Kyiv regime were handed over to UN and ICRC (Red Cross) representatives.”
The UN did not say how many civilians it was transporting from Mariupol and it was not immediately clear why the sides had given different figures.
UN spokesperson Saviano Abreu confirmed that “a safe passage operation” was underway at Azovstal and in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross and “the parties to the conflict”.
Zaporizhzhia, a city around 150km (90 miles) to the northwest of Mariupol, was the destination of the evacuation effort, Abreu said.
He said women, children and the elderly – who have been stranded for nearly two months – will be evacuated to the city, where they will receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services.
“At this point, and as the operations are underway, we will not share further details, as it could jeopardise the safety of the civilians and the convoy,” Abreu said.
A team from Doctors Without Borders was at a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia on Sunday, in preparation for the U.N. convoy’s arrival, if successful.
As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant – the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
Denys Shleha, commander of Ukraine’s 12th National guard brigade, speaking to television on Sunday from the Azovstal plant, said several hundred civilians remained in bunkers there, including about 20 children, and that one or two additional evacuation efforts of similar scale would be needed.