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Russian troops resume assault on Mariupol steel plant after evacuation of civilians

Mariupol (Міністерство внутрішніх справ України/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

More than 100 people who were evacuated from a steel plant in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol have arrived in Zaporizhzhya, the Mariupol city council said, as Russian forces resumed their assault on the complex.

The council said in a statement that the people who arrived in Zaporizhzhya — a city about 230 kilometers northwest of Mariupol — were receiving assistance after emerging from weeks in the bunkers of the sprawling Azovstal plant.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 156 people were evacuated. She said several hundred more people remained inside the plant and tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly remain in Mariupol.

“There is no medicine, water, or communication services,” she said at a briefing on May 3, adding that the authorities needed to rescue everyone who wants to escape.

The United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross coordinated the evacuation of women, children, and the elderly from the steel works.

“We would have hoped that many more people would have been able to join the convoy and get out of hell. That is why we have mixed feelings,” Pascal Hundt of the ICRC told journalists on a video conference call.

Osnat Lubrani, UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, said that 101 women, men, children, and older people could finally leave the plant, and several dozen more joined the convoy in a town on the outskirts of Mariupol. Some evacuees decided not to stay with the convoy and headed to destinations other than Zaporizhzhya, Lubrani said.

A few women who arrived in Zaporizhzhya held up handmade signs calling on the Ukrainian authorities to evacuate soldiers still holed up in the plant and their relatives and loved ones who are trapped.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he hoped the continued coordination with Kyiv and Moscow will lead to more humanitarian pauses that will allow civilians safe passage from the fighting.

Despite the calls for additional evacuations, Russian troops began to storm the plant soon after the latest group of people got out, Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications under the National Security and Defense Council said in a statement on May 3.

According to the Vereshchuk, Russia purposely resumed the assault after some civilians got out.

“This was their plan: to allow some civilians to leave and then continue bombing. However, civilians remain there, there are people who did not have time to get out from under the rubble because the blockages were so heavy that in two days they simply could not lift them physically. We need to continue the humanitarian operation, including Azovstal,” Vereshchuk said.

French President Emmanuel Macron also urged that evacuations from the steel plant be allowed to continue.

Macron spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on May 3, calling on Russia to rise to the level of its responsibility as a permanent member of the UN Security Council by ending its devastating aggression, an Elysee statement said.

The storming of the plant comes days after Putin said he had called off plans for such an operation. Putin instead said he wanted Russian forces to blockade the sprawling plant “so a fly can’t get through.”

Later on May 3, Russian strikes began targeting the western city of Lviv. The strikes happened just before 8:30 p.m. local time. It wasn’t immediately clear what was targeted.

Mayor Andriy Sadoviy wrote on social media that people in the city should take shelter. Train service out of Lviv was suspended.

Sadoviy acknowledged in another message that the attacks had damaged power stations, cutting off electricity in some districts.

The governor of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine said Russian troops shelled a coke plant in the city of Avdiyivka, killing at least 10 people and wounding 15 more.

“The Russians knew exactly where to aim — the workers just finished their shift and were waiting for a bus at a bus stop to take them home,” Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote in a Telegram post. “Another cynical crime by Russians on our land.”

Kyrylenko said 11 more people were killed in the shelling of four towns in the region. The number includes five killed in the town of Lyman and four in Vuhledar.

Kyrylenko said the death toll on May 3 was the highest on a single day since a Russian strike on a train station in the city of Kramatorsk killed 57 people on April 8 and injured 109 others.

Ukrainian officials say the Russian military also struck railroad infrastructure across the country on May 3.

Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of the state-run Ukrainian railways, said the Russian strikes hit six railway stations in the country’s central and western regions, inflicting heavy damage.

The governor of the Dnipro region, Valentyn Reznichenko, said Russian missiles struck railway infrastructure in the area, leaving one person wounded and disrupting train service.

Earlier on May 3, in a video address to the parliament in Kyiv, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced 300 million pounds ($376 million) worth of extra military aid for Ukraine.

Britain has already sent military equipment, including missiles and missile launchers, to Ukraine. The new aid will consist of electronic warfare equipment, a battery radar system, GPS jamming equipment, and thousands of night vision devices.

In his speech, Johnson referred to a 1940 address by World War II leader Winston Churchill as Britain faced Nazi Germany’s aggression.

“The British people showed such unity and resolve that we remember our time of greatest peril as our finest hour,” Johnson told the Verkhovna Rada. “This is Ukraine’s finest hour, an epic chapter in your national story that will be remembered and recounted for generations to come.”

“We will carry on supplying Ukraine…with weapons, funding, and humanitarian aid, until we have achieved our long-term goal, which must be so to fortify Ukraine that no one will ever dare to attack you again,” Johnson said.

In Brussels, the EU’s executive indicated it was prepared to propose another sanctions package to punish Moscow for invading Ukraine. But Slovakia and Hungary will not support sanctions against Russian energy, including on oil imports.

The two countries say they are too reliant on Russian oil and there are no immediate alternatives.

The sanctions will also target the Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, which will be excluded from the global banking communications system SWIFT, unnamed diplomats said.

Fighting also raged in the strategic port city of Odesa and across Ukraine’s east. A 15-year-old boy was killed in a fresh Russian strike on Odesa, the city council said.

Ukraine’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, was under shelling, the military said on May 3, while the General Staff said Ukrainian forces were defending the approach to Kharkiv from Izyum, some 120 kilometers to the southeast.

Since Russia launched its unprovoked war on February 24, its troops have failed to completely take over any major Ukrainian city.

On the diplomatic front, Germany’s conservative opposition leader traveled to Kyiv on May 3 for meetings with Ukrainian officials, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz made clear that he wouldn’t be visiting Ukraine any time soon.

Friedrich Merz, who heads former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc, visited the town of Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, which has been heavily bombarded by Russian forces.

Scholz refused to go to Ukraine because of Kyiv’s refusal to invite Germany’s head of state, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whom Ukrainians accuse of cozying up to Russia during his time as foreign minister.

“It can’t work that a country that provides so much military aid, so much financial aid…you then say that the president can’t come,” Scholz told public broadcaster ZDF late on May 2.

The United States warned that Moscow was planning to formally take over regions in Ukraine’s east.

Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, said Russia is planning to imminently annex the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, using referendums after failing to overthrow the government in Kyiv.

Russia encountered surprisingly staunch resistance in the north around the regions of Kyiv and Chernihiv, which forced it to redeploy its troops in the south and east, where fighting has intensified in recent days.

Ukraine’s east and south are seen as key strategic goals for Russia, allowing it a land link to Crimea.

Separately, Russia’s state news agency TASS quoted the Defense Ministry on May 3 as saying that more than 1 million people, including nearly 200,000 children, had been taken from Ukraine to Russia in the past two months.

Defense Ministry official Mikhail Mizintsev said those civilians “were evacuated to the territory of the Russian Federation from the dangerous regions” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, and from other parts that came under Russian control.

No details were provided on the location or circumstances of the moves.