KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces fought village by village Saturday to halt a Russian advance in the east of the country, as the United Nations worked to broker a civilian evacuation from the last defensive stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the port city of Mariupol.
About 100,000 civilians remain in the city and up to 1,000 live under a sprawling Soviet-era steelworks., according to Ukrainian officials. Ukraine did not say how many fighters were also at the factory, the only part of Mariupol not occupied by Russian forces, but Russia put the number at around 2,000.
Russian state media reported on Saturday that 25 civilians had been evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant, although there was no confirmation Russian UN news agency RIA Novosti said that 19 adults and six children had been evacuated, but gave no further details.
A senior official from the Azov regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the plant, said 20 civilians had been evacuated during a ceasefire, although it was unclear whether he was referring to the same group than the Russian reports.
“They are women and children,” Sviatoslav Palamar said in a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel. He also called for the evacuation of the wounded: “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled territory is not discussed.”
Video and footage from inside the factory, shared with The Associated Press by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands were among the fighters refusing to go, showed unidentified men with stained bandages; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.
Skeletal medical personnel were treating at least 600 wounded, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Ukrainian National Guard’s Azov regiment. Some of the wounds were rotting with gangrene, they said.
In the video, the men said they only ate once a day and shared only 1.5 liters (50 ounces) of water a day between four people, and that the stores inside the besieged installation were exhausted.
A shirtless man appeared to be in pain as he described his injuries: two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a dislocated arm that “hung from the flesh”.
“I want to say to everyone who sees this: if you don’t stop it here, in Ukraine, it will go further, in Europe,” he said.
AP could not independently verify the date and location of the video, which the women say was taken last week in the maze of hallways and bunkers beneath the factory.
The women urged that Ukrainian fighters also be evacuated alongside civilians, warning that they could be tortured and executed if captured. “Soldiers’ lives matter too,” Yuliia Fedusiuk told the AP in Rome.
In his nightly video address on Saturday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy turned to Russian to urge Russian troops not to fight in Ukraine, saying even their generals expect thousands of them to die.
The president accused Moscow of recruiting new soldiers “with little motivation and little combat experience” so that units emptied at the start of the war could be sent back to battle.
“Every Russian soldier can still save his own life,” Zelenskyy said. “It is better for you to survive in Russia than to perish on our land.”
In other developments:
– Ukrainian Deputy Agriculture Minister Taras Vysotsky said in televised remarks that Russian forces had seized hundreds of thousands of tons of grain from the territory under their control. Ukraine is a major grain producer, and the invasion has pushed up world prices and raised fears of shortages.
– A Russian rocket attack destroyed the runway at the airport in Odessa, Ukraine’s third-most populous city and a key Black Sea port, the Ukrainian military said.
— The bodies of three men were found buried in a forest near the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, the Kyiv regional police chief said. The men, whose bodies were found on Friday, had been tortured before being shot in the head, Andriy Nebytov wrote on Facebook. Ukrainian officials alleged that retreating Russian troops had committed massacres of civilians in Bucha.
– Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators talk to each other “almost every day”. However, he told China’s state news agency Xinhua, “progress has not been easy.”
– Two buses sent to evacuate residents of the eastern town of Popasna were fired upon and contact with organizers was lost, Mayor Nikolai Khanatov said: “We know that (the buses) reached the town, then were the target of enemy sabotage. and recognition group.
Getting a full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine has been difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. In addition, rebels backed by Ukraine and Moscow have introduced strict restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts suggested the offensive in the Donbass region, which includes Mariupol, was proceeding much more slowly than expected. So far, Russian troops and separatists appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would concentrate its military force in the east.
Numerically, Russia’s military strength greatly exceeds that of Ukraine. In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated that Russia had positioned up to 190,000 troops near the border; The standing army of Ukraine numbers about 200,000 men, spread across the country.
Yet, in part because of the tenacity of the Ukrainian resistance, the United States believes the Russians are “at least several days behind what they wanted to be” as they attempt to surround Ukrainian troops at east, a senior US defense official said. on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military’s assessment.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, the Russian offensive could intensify further and overtake the Ukrainians. Overall, the Russian army has about 900,000 men in active service. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid have flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast arsenals mean Ukraine’s needs are nearly inexhaustible.
Mariupol officials described severe shortages of food, water and medicine. UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the world organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kyiv, but he could not provide details on the ongoing evacuation effort. due to the complexity and fluidity of the operation”.
“There are, right now, high-level engagements going on with all governments, Russia and Ukraine, to make sure you can save civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant.” , Abreu told AP. He did not confirm video posted on social media allegedly showing UN-registered vehicles in Mariupol.
Ukraine has blamed the failure of many previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.
Associated Press reporters Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Yesica Fisch in Sloviansk, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Trisha Thompson in Rome and AP staff around the world contributed to this report .
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine