Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for a longer ceasefire in order to evacuate more civilians from the battered city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, as Russia intensifies its assault on the Azovstal steel plant; the last holdout of Ukrainian forces there.
About 200 civilians, including children, are said to be taking shelter in the sprawling plant’s underground bunkers and Zelenskyy said it was necessary to “continue the silence” to get them all out.
“It will take time simply to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters. In the present conditions, we can not use heavy equipment to clear the rubble away. It all has to be done by hand,” the president said in an early morning address to the country on Thursday.
Zelenskyy again appealed for the assistance of the United Nations, after the UN and Red Cross evacuated hundreds of people from Mariupol and other areas this week.
A Ukrainian parliamentarian said Russian forces were inside the Azovstal plant, and the commander of the regiment inside the vast factory said the situation was “extremely difficult” and that his soldiers were engaged in “heavy, bloody battles” with the Russians.
“I am proud of my soldiers who are making superhuman efforts to contain the pressure of the enemy,” Lieutenant Colonel Denis Prokopenko said in a short video posted to Telegram.
Moscow has denied any assault on Azovstal is under way, and says its forces will cease fire to open a humanitarian corridor for civilians for three days from Thursday.
“The Russian armed forces will from 8am to 6pm (05:00 GMT to 15:00 GMT) on May 5, 6 and 7 open a humanitarian corridor from the territory of the Azovstal metallurgical plant to evacuate civilians,” the defence ministry said on Wednesday.
More than 300 civilians were evacuated on Wednesday from Mariupol and other areas in southern Ukraine as part of a joint UN-Red Cross operation, UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine Osnat Lubrani said.
“While this second evacuation of civilians from areas in Mariupol and beyond is significant, much more must be done to make sure all civilians caught up in fighting can leave, in the direction they wish,” Lubrani said.
It is unclear whether further UN evacuations are planned.
In a phone call with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Zelenskyy said UN help was needed to help rescue the civilians still trapped in Azovstal.
“The lives of the people who remain there are in danger,” he said.
Russia claimed victory in Mariupol on Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast on April 21 after laying siege to the strategically important city for weeks and leaving trapped residents without food, water or shelter.
Successive attempts to create humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave ended in failure.
Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24, describing the war as a “special military operation” in support of Russian-backed separatist areas in the east. After pulling back from areas around the capital, Kyiv, it is now focusing its firepower on Ukraine’s east.