Aid workers prepare stretchers and toys for Mariupol evacuees

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Aid workers prepared hot meals, wheelchairs and toys for civilians on Tuesday as they slowly make their way to relative safety from the pulverized remains of a steel factory in the besieged city of Mariupol during months by Russian forces.

The factory is the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in a city that is otherwise controlled by forces from Moscow and key to their campaign in eastern Ukraine. A senior US official has warned that Russia plans to annex much of the east of the country later this month.

At a reception centre, stretchers and wheelchairs were lined up, tiny children’s shoes dangling from a shopping cart and a pile of toys awaited the first convoy of civilians whose evacuation is overseen by the United Nations and the Cross- Red.

Their arrival would represent a rare glimmer of good news in the nearly 10-week war sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has killed thousands, forced millions to flee the country, devastated cities and villages and altered the post-Cold War balance. power in Eastern Europe.

More than 100 people – including elderly women and mothers with young children – left the rubble-strewn Azovstal steelworks over the weekend and left in buses and ambulances.

At least some were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The Russian military said some chose to stay in breakaway areas. In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia or Russian-controlled areas, which the Kremlin has denied.

Others left for the Ukrainian-controlled town of Zaporizhzhia, some 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol. Why the evacuees’ journey was taking so long was unclear, but the convoy likely had to pass through heavily contested areas and numerous checkpoints.

Mariupol became the symbol of human misery inflicted by war. A Russian siege trapped civilians with little access to food, water and electricity, as forces from Moscow pounded the city into rubble. The factory – where around 1,000 civilians sought refuge as well as some 2,000 fighters who refused to surrender – particularly upset the outside world.

Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that high-level negotiations were underway between Ukraine, Russia and international organizations over the evacuation of more people. But Russia resumed its bombardment of the sprawling factory by air, tank and boat after the partial evacuation, the Ukrainian Azov Battalion, whose fighters are entrenched in the factory, said on the Telegram messaging app on Monday.

After failing to take kyiv in the first weeks of the war, Russia withdrew some of its forces and focused on eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland, the Donbass. Mariupol is in the region, and its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbass.

Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said on Monday that the United States believed the Kremlin was planning to annex much of eastern Ukraine and recognize the southern city of Kherson as an independent republic. None of those decisions would be recognized by the United States or its allies, he said.

Russia plans to hold mock referendums in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Donbass that would “attempt to add a veneer of democratic or electoral legitimacy” and tie the entities to Russia, Carpenter said. He also said there were signs that Russia would hold an independence vote in Kherson.

Mayors and local lawmakers have been kidnapped, internet and cellphone services have been cut and a Russian school curriculum will soon be imposed, Carpenter said. The Ukrainian government claims that Russia has introduced its ruble as a currency there.

Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in the east has been difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east have introduced strict restrictions on reporting.

But so far Russian troops and their allied separatist forces appear to have made only minor gains, taking several small towns as they attempt to advance in relatively small groups against fierce Ukrainian resistance.

In its daily Twitter statement on the war, the British military said on Tuesday it believed the Russian military was now “significantly weaker” after suffering casualties in its war against Ukraine.

“Recovery after this will be exacerbated by sanctions,” the ministry said. “Failures in both strategic planning and operational execution prevented him from translating numerical strength into decisive advantage.”

Ukraine’s resistance has been greatly bolstered by Western weapons and other aid, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was due to announce hundreds of millions of pounds of new military support for kyiv on Tuesday in a speech to Ukraine’s parliament.

In the speech from a distance, he is expected to echo the words of Britain’s World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill in calling Ukraine’s defiant response to the Russian invasion “the finest hour” of the country.

On Monday, Ukraine said Russia rammed a strategic road and rail bridge west of Odessa, a major Black Sea port. The bridge was heavily damaged in previous Russian strikes and its destruction would have cut off a supply route for weapons and other goods from neighboring Romania.

A satellite image captured by Planet Labs PBC and analyzed by The Associated Press showed the bridge was still standing as of noon Monday.

Another image, taken on Monday, showed nearly 50 Russian military helicopters at Stary Oskol, a Russian base close to the Ukrainian border and some 175 kilometers (110 miles) northeast of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Highlighting the toll of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that at least 220 Ukrainian children have been killed by the Russian military since the war began and 1,570 educational institutions have been destroyed or damaged. He also noted that some people trying to escape the fighting fear being taken to Russia or Russian-controlled areas.

More than a million people, including nearly 200,000 children, have been taken from Ukraine to Russia, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday, according to state news agency TASS. Defense Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev said that number included 11,550 people in the past 24 hours, “without the involvement of the Ukrainian authorities”.

Zelenskyy said the UN assured him that people fleeing Mariupol would be allowed to travel to areas controlled by his government.

Regardless of official evacuations, some residents of Mariupol left alone, often in damaged private cars.

As sunset neared Monday, Yaroslav Dmytryshyn, a resident of Mariupol, drove to a reception center in Zaporizhzhia in a car with a back seat full of young people and two signs taped to the back window: “Children ” and “Little ones”.

“I can’t believe we survived,” he said, looking worn but in good spirits after two days on the road.

“There is no Mariupol at all, he said. Someone has to rebuild it, and it will take millions of tons of gold.”


Associated Press reporters Inna Varenytsia and David Keyton in Kyiv, Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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