Mariupol civilian evacuation begins to Ukraine and Russia-held territories

Photo Courtesy: Reuters via BBC

(BBC): Dozens of civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol to Russian-controlled territory after weeks under siege.

The massive industrial area is the last hold-out of Ukrainian troops in the strategically significant city.

Russia said dozens of civilians have arrived in a village it controls.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said a large group is on its way to Zaporizhzhia, which Ukraine maintains control of.

“The first group of about 100 people is already heading to the controlled area,” he tweeted. “Tomorrow we’ll meet them in Zaporizhzhia. Grateful to our team! Now they, together with UN, are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant.”

The United Nations confirmed it was involved with the operation, alongside the Red Cross and the “parties to the conflict”.

The evacuation convoy arrived on Saturday morning, the UN said – but did not give details on where people were being taken or how many had left, saying that sharing details could jeopardise the safety of the operation.

It follows conflicting reports in media about the fate of some civilians who managed to escape since late on Saturday.

The Russian defence ministry says nearly 50 civilians have left the besieged steelworks, some of whom were taken to Bezimenne, a village in Russian-held territory in Ukraine.

Reuters news agency reported that one of its photographers stationed in the village had seen more than those 50 arrive in a convoy, and reported that UN staff were in the area.

Mariupol has come under intense bombardment from Russian artillery for weeks.

The Azovstal steelworks – where Ukraine’s last defenders are hold up with some remaining civilians – is a vast industrial area with a network of underground tunnels, making its capture difficult for Russian forces.

Last month, after declaring that the southern Ukrainian city had been captured, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to seal off the steelworks “so that a fly can not pass through.”