Evacuations begin from Mariupol factory as shelling in the east continues

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Some civilians were finally evacuated from a sprawling steelworks in Mariupol after a ceasefire on Saturday allowed a small group to leave the beleaguered complex, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shrugged off much progress on negotiations wider.

Officials believe up to 1,000 people sought refuge in the large Azovstal compound, which was bludgeoned for days amid Russian strikes. New satellite images show many of the complex’s buildings flattened and roofs destroyed.

On Saturday, a group of 20 to 25 women and children had been evacuated, according to the deputy commander of a Ukrainian regiment and the official Russian news agency Tass. But it’s unclear whether hundreds more civilians and troops will be able to come out as talks between Russia and Ukraine looked even more tense.

Vladimir Yermakov, head of nuclear non-proliferation at the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Tass that a “return to dialogue with the United States on strategic stability will only be possible after completing the work of the Russian special operation in Ukraine”, using Moscow’s term for its invasion. from Ukraine. He described the dialogue as “frozen”.

He also accused the United States of using the “kyiv regime as a unique disposable tool for its own purposes against Russia”.

US officials, however, do not see much change in the status quo. They said they struggled to see a clear path to resume diplomatic talks with Russia on a range of issues, particularly after the invasion began.

On Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby told reporters that the United States was comfortable with the strategic nuclear deterrent posture in place. But the administration was closely monitoring Russia’s messages and actions given the seriousness of the problem.

“We urge Russia to stop escalating the rhetoric about nuclear weapons and do the right thing. End the war today. Ask your troops to leave Ukraine, sit down in good faith with President Zelensky and do the right thing,” Kirby said.

On the front lines, Russian forces have made little progress in eastern Ukraine, where they reinforced their troops. The Ukrainian military claimed to have regained control of four villages in the Kharkiv region on Saturday, saying Russian troops were “failing” to quickly take control of large swathes of territory in the east.

Western military analysis also indicated that Moscow is still struggling with morale and supply issues despite a renewed focus on the eastern Donbass region. The Pentagon describes only “painstaking progress” after fierce Ukrainian resistance.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Zelensky on Saturday to offer continued support. A statement from Johnson’s office said the prime minister is “more determined than ever to strengthen Ukraine and defeat Putin” and that Britain will “continue to provide additional military aid to give the Ukrainians the equipment.” they needed to defend themselves.

Separately, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the country would send investigators to Ukraine to help collect evidence of war crimes, including rape and other sexual violence.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with his counterpart, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, to provide an update on U.S. financial aid and the return of diplomats, the State Department said on Saturday.

Russian forces launch an offensive in Donbass, which encompasses parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions and borders Russia. The governor of Luhansk said on Saturday that shelling had damaged dozens of homes in recent days.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said troops repelled more than a dozen attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk in the past 24 hours. He said earlier this week that Russian forces had captured some urban settlements as they sought to extend their grip on the two provinces that make up the eastern Donbass region.

Local officials said earlier this week that infrastructure damage has left many residents without power or water.

Workers in the Ukrainian coastal town of Mariupol cleared debris on April 25 as Russian forces continued to attack fighters at the Azovstal steelworks complex. (Video: Reuters)

As the human toll continues to mount, Zelensky said Ukraine would conduct a census to assess the number of civilians dead or missing since the Russian invasion. More than 7,000 people have been reported to Ukrainian police as missing in almost two months of war. Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said on Friday that half of the cases remain unresolved. He called on supporting countries to send forensic and other experts to help.

New missile attacks continued across the country, and a strike in Odessa rendered the city’s airport unusable. The city’s official Telegram account said the track had been damaged and “further use is impossible”.

Odessa is a strategically important Black Sea port for Ukraine, making it a key target for Russian forces. Troops from Moscow, however, were unable to close in on the city, sparing it from the frequency of attacks visited in many other areas.

The Ukrainian Red Cross also said its office in Dobropillia, in the eastern region of Donetsk, was bombed on Saturday. In a Twitter post, The organization said eight of its offices in Ukraine had been damaged or destroyed since the invasion two months ago.

Even as hopes grew that more civilians could leave the Azovstal steelworks, the strikes left untold damage. Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, a nationalist group that is part of the Ukrainian National Guard, told Les actualites that “there are cellars and bunkers that we cannot reach because they are under the rubble”.

“We don’t know if the people there are alive or not. There are children aged from four months to 16 years old. But there are people trapped in inaccessible places,” Palamar said.

The situation in the factory bunkers has become increasingly dire as food and water supplies dwindle. While Ukrainian officials are demanding that humanitarian corridors remain intact to get people to safety, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday he saw no need for evacuation routes.

Palamar said that although the ceasefire began several hours late, it held Saturday morning.

Earlier on Saturday, one of the Ukrainian fighters said Ukrainian and Russian forces had stopped fighting “since morning”.

“Right now we have a ceasefire regime – neither side is firing,” Mykhailo Vershynin, head of the Donetsk regional patrol police, told The Washington Post. “All of these actions are directly related to the possibility of being able to transport people out of here. »

The Biden administration, meanwhile, is exploring ways to bring some Russian workers to the United States. The aim is to lift some visa restrictions for Russians in high-tech sectors, such as those with expertise in cybersecurity, nuclear engineering and artificial intelligence. In the long term, the intention would be to weaken Russia’s workforce and productivity.

This kind of blow would worsen an already bleak economic picture in Russia. The country’s central bank has predicted that the national economy will contract by 8-10% this year as the country suffers from international sanctions that have disrupted trade and frozen billions of dollars in reserves. In a statement on Friday, the central bank said it had cut its benchmark rate to 14% and described a further rate cut in 2022 as a possibility.

Lavrov had claimed the two sides were talking about lifting the sanctions as part of the negotiations in an interview with Chinese state media Xinhua.

“Issues of denationalization, recognition of new geopolitical realities, lifting of sanctions, the status of the Russian language and others are also on the agenda,” Lavrov said.

But Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Zelensky and a member of the negotiating team, called Lavrov’s comments “surprising”.

“The issue of comprehensive international sanctions against Russia is not discussed at all in the negotiation process,” Podoliak said, according to the Interfax Ukraine news agency. “The reason for their introduction by the global community has not yet been eliminated; it is the occupation of part of the territory of Ukraine and the unfair violation of our territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Economic uncertainty reverberated throughout the conflict, particularly with regard to energy stability. Kyiv city officials on Friday urged residents to stop driving private vehicles to save Ukraine’s limited fuel supplies for troops fighting the Russian invasion.

Zelensky acknowledged Ukraine’s fuel shortage in a speech on Friday evening and said his government would create a “fuel supply system” within two weeks to alleviate the problem, “as difficult as it may be”.

“Queues and rising prices at gas stations are seen in many parts of our country,” he said.

Actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie was spotted in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, attracting media attention. Lviv Regional Governor Maksym Kozytskyi wrote on Telegram that Jolie spent time visiting children and volunteers at a medical facility. Photos posted by Kozytskyi show Jolie spending time with children at a boarding school and volunteering at the medical facility. A video shows her playing with a young girl.

“For all of us, this visit was a surprise,” Kozytskyi wrote. “Many people who saw Ms. Jolie in the Lviv region couldn’t believe it was really her. »

Lviv, which has suffered only sporadic Russian attacks, has become a haven for civilians, diplomats, journalists and aid groups due to its relative safety and proximity to the Polish border. Jolie is the UN’s special envoy for refugees, but a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told the Washington Post in an email that Jolie was traveling to the area “in a personal capacity. “.

Karen DeYoung, Timothy Bella, Nick Parker, Lateshia Beachum, Marisa Iati and Ellen Francis contributed to this report.

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