Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine — A long-awaited effort to evacuate people from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol has begun, the International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday.
The operation to bring people out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being done by the ICRC with the United Nations and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials, an ICRC spokesperson told CBS News. Zelenskyy tweeted that the “1st group of about 100 people is already heading to the controlled area,” and said Ukrainian officials are “working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant.”
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.
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.
Zaporizhzhia, a city about 141 miles northwest of Mariupol, is the 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 Ukrainian-organized evacuations had to be called off due to ongoing shelling or concerns about route safety. Zelenskyy tweeted that he planned to visit the city on Monday to greet the evacuees.
The ICRC said the convoy to evacuate civilians started on Friday, travelling some 140 miles 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.
“All the leaders of the free world know what Russia has done to Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. He warned that Russia was “gathering additional forces for new attacks against our military in the east of the country.”
Limited evacuations from the city took place on Saturday, but the details had been unclear given the number of parties involved in the negotiations and the volatile situation on the ground.
The Russian Defense 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 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 U.N. and Red Cross representatives.