MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — All women, children and elderly people had been evacuated from the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in Mariupol, officials said Saturday, concluding one chapter of a harrowing drama where thousands of civilians had been trapped for weeks amid an intense Russian assault.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that diplomatic efforts were underway to try to free the remaining fighters as well as medics and the wounded, though he acknowledged that such a move “is extremely difficult.”
He said that 300 women and children had been saved from the plant, and that authorities would look to provide humanitarian corridors for civilians trapped in other sections of Mariupol.
The decimation of Mariupol has come to symbolize the worst of the tragedy inflicted on the Ukrainian people in the Russian occupation that began in February. The Azovstal steel plant, however, has come to represent the resolve of Ukrainians to keep their last foothold in the port city on the nation’s southern shore along the Sea of Azov.
While most residents had fled, countless families remained bunkered beneath the complex of several buildings and a labyrinth of tunnels. Earlier escapees described how they had lived for more than a month without sunlight as fear pervaded and food dwindled.
Russia still aims to capture the plant — the last sliver of Mariupol under Ukrainian forces. Control of Mariupol would allow Russia to establish a land bridge with annexed Crimea.
Fighting continued in Ukraine’s eastern region over the weekend, with the Ukrainians accusing Russian forces of blowing up three bridges northeast of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, to prevent counterattacks. In the south, Russian forces launched cruise missiles at the Black Sea port of Odessa, hitting a civilian target, according to the Ukrainian military.
Russian forces also bombed a school in the eastern region of Luhansk, trapping dozens of people in the rubble, the region’s governor said. Health care facilities in Ukraine have sustained more than 200 attacks since the war began, World Health Organization officials said, characterizing the assaults as war crimes.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, Western leaders continue to offer support for Ukraine as they ratchet up efforts to put pressure on Russia to withdraw from its positions.
Zelensky is scheduled to be part of a virtual meeting Sunday with President Biden and the heads of Group of Seven countries to discuss developments in Ukraine and the possibility of additional sanctions imposed on Russia.
First lady Jill Biden, on a four-day trip to Eastern Europe, was in Romania on Saturday where she met with Ukrainian mothers and children who fled their homes, embarking on harrowing journeys to escape to safety. Their stories appeared to leave Biden close to tears. She voiced concern that the refugee crisis “keeps going on and on.”
Biden and Carmen Iohannis, the first lady of Romania, visited a school in Bucharest, the country’s capital, where they met children who were working on art projects. Mila, a 7-year-old from Kyiv, wrote a message on her project that her teacher translated as “I want to return to my father.”
A 5-year-old child could not write but drew pictures that her teacher said conveyed this message: “I want to go to Odessa as soon as possible. That’s my wish.”
One mother, who had been a teacher in Ukraine, fled to Romania with her 3-year-old in March as bombing ravaged their city. She said the Romanians had been “wonderful” in offering assistance to the refugees, kindness “you don’t expect from people.”
Russia’s Victory Day is Monday, and officials fear President Vladimir Putin will use the holiday as a reason to increase the pace of shellings and possibly to officially declare “war” on Ukraine. The Kremlin has avoided using the term to describe the ongoing conflict which so far has not earned Russia the regional victories many expected it to swiftly make.
Victory Day honors the Soviet Union’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Putin has repeatedly made the bogus claims that Ukraine promotes neo-Nazism and that Zelensky, who is Jewish, is a Nazi sympathizer.
Comparing Ukraine to Nazi Germany has been a hallmark of Putin’s propaganda push in Russia, where criticism of the war is illegal and a communications crackdown has left Russians with essentially no knowledge of the conflict aside from what is released from official state media.
In Moscow, there was a Red Square rehearsal for Victory Day on Saturday ahead of a celebration that is expected to be a chance for the Russian military to showcase its wartime prowess. The Russian Defense Ministry says 11,000 troops and 131 items of military hardware will take part in a Victory Day parade on Monday.
Ukrainian officials fear that Victory Day could mean an escalation of attacks as citizens were reminded to heed warnings from air raid sirens and to adhere to local curfews.
CIA Director William J. Burns, speaking at the Financial Times Weekend Festival in Washington on Saturday, said that Putin “is in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose; so the stakes are quite high in this phase.”
“I think he’s convinced right now that doubling down still will enable him to make progress,” Burns added.
Burns also noted that the “bitter” first two to three months of the conflict surprised Communist Chinese officials, who could now be recalculating their approach to Taiwan. The threat of a military conflict has long loomed as China has sought control of Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province.
In his talk, Burns did not address the sharing of U.S. intelligence with Ukraine but the subject has recently become a sore point for the Biden administration. A missile strike by Ukrainian forces that sank Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea may not have been possible without U.S. assistance, The Washington Post reported Thursday.
The Pentagon has acknowledged providing “battlefield intelligence” to help Ukrainians defend their country but not specific targets.
Russia’s most senior lawmaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, accused the United States of “directly participating in military actions” against Russia by providing intelligence to Ukraine and added that the U.S. should be “held accountable” for Ukraine’s actions against Russia.
Russia has shown signs of recovering from what has been an underdog campaign of incessant battering by Ukraine, sending troop reinforcements and rearmaments to the Eastern region as Ukraine’s Western allies scramble to send artillery and ammunition to its military.
Experts have said the Ukrainian army, assisted by able-bodied male citizens and volunteers, has a chance of defeating its invader if it is adequately supplied.
Jacobs reported from New York, Bella from Washington and Pager from Bucharest. Adela Suliman and Catherine Belton in London; Andrew Jeong in Seoul; Liz Sly in Riga, Latvia; Louisa Loveluck in Dnipro, Ukraine; and Meryl Kornfeld, Shane Harris, and Maria Iati in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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