More civilians have been rescued from the tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol, a Ukrainian official said Friday, even as fighters holed up at the sprawling complex made their last stand to prevent Moscow’s complete takeover of the strategic port city.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 50 civilians were evacuated from the plant Friday. The Russian Interdepartmental Humanitarian Response Center said 11 of the 50 were children.
The fight in the last Ukrainian stronghold, a city reduced to ruins by the Russian onslaught, appeared increasingly desperate. About 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia’s most recent estimate, are holed up in a vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath Azovstal steelworks — and they have repeatedly refused to surrender.
Local authorities in Mariupol accused Russian forces Friday of firing on a car traveling to evacuate civilians from the vast steel works, killing a fighter and violating a cease-fire agreement, Reuters reported.
As the drama in Mariupol continued to unfold, Pope Francis on Friday called the war in Ukraine “barbarous” because of the Christian-against-Christian nature of the conflict. He made the comment to members of a Vatican office that promotes Christian unity among Catholics, Orthodox and other Christian churches.
“Today, in the face of the barbarism of war, this yearning for unity must be fueled again,” he said.
Russian forces control all but the steel works in the devastated city on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. Mariupol has been repeatedly targeted by Russia during its 10-week offensive.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was Russia’s attack that was keeping an estimated 200 civilians pinned down in the plant’s underground bunkers.
“Just imagine this hell! And there are children there,” he said late Thursday in his nightly video address. “More than two months of constant shelling, bombing, constant death.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier assured Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a phone call that Moscow’s forces were prepared to allow safe passage for those trapped in the steel plant, with daytime pauses in fighting through Saturday.
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed skepticism about Russia’s commitment to a cease-fire.
In other news:
The U.N. Security Council, which includes Russia, agreed on a statement with “strong support” for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ efforts to find a peaceful solution to the “dispute” in Ukraine. A vote to adopt the statement, which was drafted by Norway and Mexico, could happen as soon as Friday and would be the first such statement from the UNSC since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Reuters reports that Russian President Putin will send a “doomsday” message to the West on May 9 at an event marking the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesman said Friday that Russia has no intention of deploying tactical nuclear weapons to Ukraine.
“Russia firmly abides by the principle that there can be no victors in a nuclear war, and it must not be unleashed,” Alexei Zaitsev said.
Ukrainian officials from the country’s national security council said Friday that Victory Day could mean more shelling in parts of Ukraine.
“Since Russian troops cannot boast of any significant achievements on the front by Victory Day, the risk of massive shelling of Ukrainian cities these days is increasing,” the officials wrote on Facebook.
The Pentagon distanced itself from reports it had helped Ukraine sink the Russian missile cruiser Moskva.
The U.S. “did not provide Ukraine with specific targeting information for the Moskva,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Friday, adding that the U.S. does share intelligence with Ukraine.
“We were not involved in the Ukrainians’ decision to strike the ship or in the operation they carried out,” he added. “We had no prior knowledge of Ukraine’s intent to target the ship.”
The U.S. also rejected earlier reports that it had supplied Ukraine with intelligence to target Russian generals. On Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the reports inaccurate.
The White House said Friday that U.S. President Joe Biden and other G-7 leaders will have a virtual meeting Sunday with Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy.
The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization said there were signs Russia is stealing grain from Ukraine.
“There’s anecdotal evidence that Russian troops have destroyed storage capacity and that they are looting the storage grain that is available. They are also stealing farm equipment,” said Josef Schmidhuber, deputy director of FAO markets and trade division when speaking to reporters Friday in Geneva.
U.S. first lady Jill Biden arrived Friday at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania to start her European visit to show support for U.S. troops and Ukraine. After visiting Romania, she will head to Slovakia, where on Sunday she’ll meet with displaced Ukrainian families.