Diplomatic efforts are under way to save Ukrainian fighters holed up inside a steelworks in Mariupol after they pledged to fight Russian forces to the death as battles continue to increase in ferocity.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a late-night video address that Ukraine was working on a diplomatic effort to save the defenders barricaded inside the steel plant.
“Influential intermediaries are involved, influential states,” he said, but provided no further details.
Ukrainian officials fear Russian troops plan to wipe out the Azov Battalion fighters in the steel plant by Monday in time for Moscow’s commemorations of the former Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Mariupol has endured the most destructive bombardment of the 10-week-old war, and the sprawling Soviet-era Azovstal plant is the last part of the city – a strategic southern port on the Azov Sea – still in the hands of Ukrainian fighters.
By Russia’s most recent estimate, roughly 2,000 Ukrainian fighters are in the vast maze of tunnels and bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks. They have repeatedly refused to surrender.
Kateryna Prokopenko, whose husband Denys Prokopenko commands the Azov Regiment troops inside the plant, issued a desperate plea to spare the fighters.
She said they would be willing to go to a third country to wait out the war, but would never surrender to Russia because that would mean “filtration camps, prison, torture and death”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin referenced the presence of Azov Battalion fighters within the Ukrainian military as one of the reasons for launching his “special military operation … to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine”.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Russia was trying to finish off forces inside the plant to seize it by Monday as a gift for Putin in time for the Victory Day holiday.
Putin declared victory in Mariupol on April 21, ordered the plant sealed off and called for Ukrainian forces inside to disarm. But Russia later resumed its assault on the plant.
Asked about plans for Russia to mark the World War II anniversary day in parts of Ukraine it holds, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The time will come to mark Victory Day in Mariupol.”
United Nations-brokered evacuations began last weekend of some of the hundreds of civilians who took shelter in a network of tunnels and bunkers beneath the plant. But they were halted during the week by renewed fighting.
On Friday, 50 women, children and elderly people were evacuated, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, adding the operation would continue on Saturday. The Russian side constantly violated a local ceasefire, she said, making the evacuation very slow.
Russia confirmed the number of evacuees and said: “The humanitarian operation at Azovstal will continue on May 7.”
The city’s mayor estimated earlier this week 200 civilians were trapped at the plant with little food or water. It was unclear how many remained.
Russian forces were accused of firing on vehicles attempting to transport people out of the steel plant.
Fighters defending the plant said on Friday on the Telegram messaging app Russian troops opened fire on an evacuation vehicle. They said the car was moving towards civilians when it was hit by shelling, and one soldier was killed and six were wounded.
Moscow did not immediately acknowledge the accusation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it hopes the evacuation of civilians from a besieged steel plant can be replicated elsewhere.
However, Dominik Stillhart, a senior ICRC official, said it was “extremely frustrating” that it took weeks of painstaking work to get Russian and Ukrainian authorities on board to work out logistics so combatants at every checkpoint knew when buses would drive by.
He added there was little information about people being moved from eastern Ukraine to Russia by Moscow’s forces.