Russia renewed shelling Tuesday of Ukraine’s besieged southern port city of Mariupol, where 200 civilians are trapped in the Azovstal steel plant even as the United Nations said that 101 people had been safely evacuated from the site.
Russia’s RIA news agency reported that the country’s defense ministry said its forces were destroying Ukrainian firing positions after Kyiv’s troops “took advantage” of a U.N.-brokered ceasefire to create new redoubts while the evacuation of an initial group of civilians was occurring over the last few days.
A police official told the public broadcaster Suspine that Russian forces have begun trying to seize the plant with its labyrinth system of tunnels and bunkers, the last Ukrainian-held site in Mariupol. A deputy commander of the Azov regiment holed up in the steel works said Russian aircraft bombed the site overnight.
Meanwhile, Russia launched attacks on other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, targeting advanced Western military hardware that the U.S. and its allies have shipped to Ukraine to help Kyiv’s forces in their fight against Russia’s 10-week invasion.
Osnat Lubrani, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, said she was “pleased and relieved” that the 101 civilians, including older men and women and children, had been evacuated from Azovstal plant, and were joined by another 58 from Manhush, a town on the outskirts of Mariupol.
The U.N. official said 127 people had been transported to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol, where they are receiving initial humanitarian assistance and health care.
“Over the past days, traveling with the evacuees, I have heard mothers, children and frail grandparents speak about the trauma of living day after day under unrelenting heavy shelling and the fear of death, and with extreme lack of water, food, and sanitation,” Lubrani said.
“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. “I saw the tears of joy as family members trapped in different parts of the plant for two months were reunited.”
As the war continues, the European Commission was moving to finalize a ban on buying Russian oil to squeeze Moscow financially.
“We have managed to reach a situation where Germany is able to bear an oil embargo,” German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Monday, “We expect a new package from the European Union soon. This package should include clear steps to block Russia’s revenues from energy resources.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, echoing praise for Ukraine from other Western leaders, told Ukraine’s parliament via a video link, “This is Ukraine’s finest hour, that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come.”
The Mariupol mayor said that overall, 100,000 people remained in the city, including 2,000 Ukrainian troops in the steel plant.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Monday that Ukraine’s government was continuing to work to negotiate an evacuation for soldiers holed up inside.
Russia’s military said Monday that 69 people who came out of the steel mill chose to be evacuated to Ukraine-controlled territories, while 57 others asked to stay in areas controlled by Russia.
Ukraine has previously accused Russia of taking Ukrainians to Russia against their will, a charge Moscow denies.
Zelenskyy told Greek state television Monday that the remaining civilians in the steel plant had been afraid to board buses because they believed they would be taken to Russia.
On Tuesday U.S. President Joe Biden is visiting the southern state of Alabama where Lockheed Martin manufactures weapons, including the Javelin anti-tank missiles that are among the arms the United States is sending to Ukraine.
The White House said Biden will also “deliver remarks highlighting his request to Congress to pass ($33 billion in new) funding quickly to help Ukraine continue to succeed against Russian aggression and make sure the United States and our allies can replenish our own stocks of weapons to replace what we have sent to Ukraine.”
The CIA on Monday released instructions on social media explaining how Russians disaffected by the war could get in touch with U.S. intelligence.
“We are providing Russian-language instructions on how to safely contact the CIA — via our dark web site or a reputable VPN — for those who feel compelled to reach us because of the Russian government’s unjust war,” a CIA spokesperson said.
A senior U.S. defense official described continuing problems for Russia’s military, including poor command and control issues and low morale in many units.
“We continue to see minimal at best progress by the Russians” in capturing the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine,” the official said, adding, “They’ll move in, declare victory and then pull out, allowing the Ukrainians to take it back.”
The official described Russia’s advances as “very cautious, very tepid, very uneven,” adding that “in some places, quite frankly, the best word to describe it would be ‘anemic.'”
VOA’s Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.