By CARA ANNA and YESICA FISCH
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — A long-awaited effort to evacuate people from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway Sunday, the United Nations said, while U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed she visited Ukraine’s president to show unflinching American support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression.
U.N. humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told The Associated Press that the operation to bring people out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being done with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.
As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.
Like other evacuations, success of the mission in Mariupol depended on Russia and its forces, deployed along a long series of checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian ones.
Zaporizhzhia, a city about 141 miles (227 kilometers) northwest of Mariupol, was the destination of the evacuation effort, Abreu said. He said women, children and the elderly — who have been stranded for nearly two months — will be evacuated to the city, where they will receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services.
Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and hundreds of people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter.
“As the operations are still ongoing, we will not provide further details at this point, to guarantee the safety of the civilians and humanitarians in the convoy,” Abreu said of the evacuation.
“The U.N. will also continue to push for the safe passage out of Mariupol city for all those civilians who wish to leave,” he said.
The U.N. said the convoy to evacuate civilians started on Friday, traveling some 140 miles (230 kilometers) before reaching the plant in Mariupol on Saturday morning.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a tweet Sunday afternoon that the first group of about 100 people was headed to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
“Tomorrow we’ll meet them in Zaporizhzhia. Grateful to our team! Now they, together with #UN, are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant,” he tweeted.
A team with Doctors Without Borders was at a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia on Sunday, in preparation for the U.N. convoy’s arrival, if successful. Stress, exhaustion and low supplies of food have likely weakened the health of civilians who have been trapped underground at the steel plant.
People fleeing Russian-occupied areas have described their vehicles being fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.
Russia’s high-stakes offensive in coastal southern Ukraine and the country’s eastern industrial heartland has Ukrainian forces fighting village-by-village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling.
Pelosi, a California Democrat who is second in line to succeed the president, is the most senior American lawmaker to travel to Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Her Saturday visit came just days after Russia launched rockets at the capital during a visit by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
During a Sunday news conference in the Polish city of Rzeszow, Pelosi said she and other members of a U.S. congressional delegation met with Zelenskyy in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, for three hours and brought him “a message of appreciation from the American people for his leadership.”
Rep. Jason Crow, a U.S. Army veteran and a member of the House intelligence and armed services committees, said he came to Ukraine with three areas of focus: “Weapons, weapons and weapons.”
“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win. What we have seen in the last two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight and their ability to win if they have the support to do so,” the Colorado Democrat said.
Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine following their failure to capture the capital, Kyiv. Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
“All the leaders of the free world know what Russia has done to Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. He warned that Russia was “gathering additional forces for new attacks against our military in the east of the country.”
Limited evacuations from the city took place on Saturday, but the details had been unclear given the number of parties involved in the negotiations and the volatile situation on the ground.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a total of 46 people were evacuated from areas near the Azovstal plant.
On Saturday, Ukrainian regiment Deputy Commander Sviatoslav Palamar called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians. “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed,” he said in a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel.
Undeterred by air raid sirens and warnings to shelter at home, people in Zaporizhzhia visited cemeteries Sunday, when Ukrainians observe the Orthodox Christian day of the dead.
“If our dead could rise and see this, they would say, ‘It’s not possible, they’re worse than the Germans,’” Hennadiy Bondarenko, 61, said while marking the day with his family at a picnic table among the graves. “All our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”
Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in eastern Ukraine has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Also, both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Western military analysts have suggested the offensive in the Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was going much slower than planned. So far, Russian troops and the separatists appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would focus its military strength in the east.
Video and images from inside the Mariupol steel plant, shared with the AP by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands are among the fighters refusing to surrender there, showed unidentified men with stained bandages; others had open wounds or amputated limbs.
A skeleton medical staff was treating at least 600 wounded people, said the women, who identified their husbands as members of the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard. Some of the wounds were rotting with gangrene, they said.
The AP could not independently verify the date and location of the video, which the women said was taken in the last week in the maze of corridors and bunkers beneath the plant.
Meanwhile, a fire broke out Sunday at a Russian defense ministry facility in the southern Belgorod region, about 30 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, the Belgorod regional governor said.
In a Telegram post, Vyacheslav Gladkov said emergency responders were working at the site, where he said one resident sustained minor injuries and seven residential buildings suffered “varying degrees of damage.”
The defense ministry did not immediately comment on the incident.
Separately, the governor of Russia’s Kursk region, which also borders Ukraine, said on Telegram Sunday that a railway bridge on a regional line used by freight trains had been damaged in “an act of sabotage.” Roman Starovoyt did not identify the alleged perpetrators, but said a criminal investigation had been opened into the case.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast armories mean Ukraine will continue to require huge amounts of support.
In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated Russia had positioned near the border as many as 190,000 troops; Ukraine’s standing military totals about 200,000, spread throughout the country.
With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s offensive still could intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. Overall the Russian army has an estimated 900,000 active-duty personnel. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy.
Fisch reported from Sloviansk. Associated Press journalists Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Trisha Thompson in Rome and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
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