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Russia Storms Mariupol Plant as Some Evacuees Reach Safety

People with children wait after arriving from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol at a center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
People with children wait after arriving from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol at a center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Russian forces Tuesday began storming the steel mill containing the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol, Ukrainian defenders said, just as scores of civilians evacuated from the bombed-out plant reached relative safety and told of days and nights filled with dread and despair from constant shelling.

Osnat Lubrani, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, said that thanks to the evacuation effort over the weekend, 101 people — including women, the elderly, and 17 children, the youngest 6 months old — were able to emerge from the bunkers under the Azovstal steelworks and “see the daylight after two months.”

One evacuee said she went to sleep at the plant every night afraid she wouldn’t wake up.

One evacuee said she went to sleep at the plant every night afraid she wouldn’t wake up.

“You can’t imagine how scary it is when you sit in the bomb shelter, in a damp and wet basement, and it is bouncing and shaking,” 54-year-old Elina Tsybulchenko said upon arriving in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, in a convoy of buses and ambulances.

She said if the shelter were hit by a bomb like the ones that left the huge craters she saw on the two occasions she ventured outside, “all of us would be done.”

Evacuees, a few of whom were in tears, made their way from the buses into a tent offering some of the comforts long denied them during their weeks underground, including hot food, diapers and connections to the outside world. Mothers fed small children. Some of the evacuees browsed racks of donated clothing, including new underwear.

The news for those left behind was more grim. Ukrainian commanders said Russian forces backed by tanks began storming the sprawling plant, which includes a maze of tunnels and bunkers spread out over 11 square kilometers (4 square miles).

How many Ukrainian fighters were holed up inside was unclear, but the Russians put the number at about 2,000 in recent weeks, and 500 were reported to be wounded. A few hundred civilians also remained there, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

“We’ll do everything that’s possible to repel the assault, but we’re calling for urgent measures to evacuate the civilians that remain inside the plant and to bring them out safely,” Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, said on the messaging app Telegram.

He added that throughout the night, the plant was hit with naval artillery fire and airstrikes. Two civilian women were killed and 10 civilians wounded, he said.

The U.N.’s Lubrani expressed hope for further evacuations but said none had been worked out.

In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that by storming the steel mill, Russian forces violated agreements for safe evacuations. He said the prior evacuations are “not a victory yet, but it’s already a result. I believe there’s still a chance to save other people.”

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