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Groups ferry Ukrainians from Mariupol

Red Cross and U.N. workers rescued civilians from Ukraine's besieged Mariupol, busing them to safety as part of a negotiated "safe passage" operation.

A residential building in Mariupol fired on by Russian tanks
A residential building in Mariupol fired on by Russian tanks (AN/Sky News)

Red Cross and U.N. workers rescued 101 civilians trapped for two months in darkness inside the Soviet-era Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine's besieged port city of Mariupol, successfully transporting them and dozens of others to safety as part of a negotiated "safe passage" operation, U.N. officials said on Tuesday.

Humanitarian officials carried out the evacuation from Azovstal over the weekend, bringing the civilians, including elderly women and mothers with young children, by bus and ambulance to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia. The evacuation was agreed to under terms negotiated by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres during his visits to Moscow and Kyiv.

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, the destruction and violence inflicted on the strategic port city of Mariupol along the Sea of Azov has exemplified the war's brutality. Capturing the city would give Russia a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.

"I am pleased and relieved to confirm that 101 civilians have successfully been evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and other areas in a safe passage operation coordinated by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross," the U.N.'s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, Osnat Lubrani, said.

"Another 58 people joined us in Manhush, a town on the outskirts of Mariupol," she said. "We have accompanied 127 people today to Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol, where they are receiving initial humanitarian assistance, including health and psychological care, from U.N. agencies, ICRC and our humanitarian partners. Some evacuees decided not to proceed towards Zaporizhzhia with the convoy."

Lubrani said while traveling with the evacuees she heard mothers, children and frail grandparents talk about the trauma of being trapped each day, in a place where they were targeted with heavy shelling and feared dying, while suffering from an extreme lack of water, food, and sanitation.

"They spoke of the hell they have experienced since this war started, seeking refuge in the Azovstal plant, many being separated from family members whose fate they still don’t know," she said. Once they reached safety, she added, there were joyful tears shed by family members, such as a mother delighted at her 6-month-old boy playing with a straw of grass.

A 'clear need'

The evacuation came not a moment too soon. Within hours, Russian forces took over the steel plant where Mariupol's last bit of resistance stood. Before the invasion, Mariupol had 400,000 inhabitants, but since the war began it has been under siege, with many of its civilians lacking electrical power and adequate supplies of food, water and medicine. A maternity hospital was pounded by a Russian airstrike, and a theater was bombed, killing hundreds of people.

"After many weeks of negotiations, after many attempts, different meetings, people, calls, countries, proposals. Finally! There was not a single day when we did not try to find a solution that would save our people," Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday. "Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vital corridor has started working. For the first time there were two days of real cease-fire on this territory."

World Health Organization medical staff in Ukraine were stationed to receive civilians from Mariupol. "To meet the health needs of evacuees from Mariupol, WHO teams are preparing hospitals and medical supplies to treat infectious and waterborne diseases due to infrastructure damage, injuries, and to provide psychosocial support for severe trauma and mental health issues," WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

In a visit to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskyy and other top Ukrainian officials, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of a Congressional delegation said they sought "to send an unmistakable and resounding message to the entire world: America stands firmly with Ukraine."

Zelenskyy began the meeting by thanking the United States for its initial US$13.6 billion aid package last month, Pelosi and other Congressional members said, but he also "conveyed the clear need for continued security, economic and humanitarian assistance" to deal with the war's devastation. U.S. President Joe Biden has asked Congress for US$33 billion more to support Ukraine's defenses, government and civilians.