Around 100 civilians have been evacuated from the besieged steel plant in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, after the United Nations and the International Red Cross brokered a deal to extract non-combatants from the site of the most destructive siege of the war in Ukraine.
A first group of 100 evacuees will arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted on Sunday.
Ukraine is working with the UN to evacuate other civilians from the Azovstal steel plant, he said.
“The operation is [still] ongoing,” Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a video address.
Russia’s defence ministry gave a lower figure of 80 civilians evacuated from the Azovstal plant, adding: “Those who wished to leave for areas controlled by the Kyiv regime were handed over to UN and ICRC (Red Cross) representatives.”
The UN did not say how many civilians it was transporting from Mariupol and it was not immediately clear why the sides had given different figures.
UN spokesperson Saviano Abreu confirmed that “a safe passage operation” was underway at Azovstal and in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross and “the parties to the conflict”.
Zaporizhzhia, a city around 150km (90 miles) to the 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.
“At this point, and as the operations are underway, we will not share further details, as it could jeopardise the safety of the civilians and the convoy,” Abreu said.
A team from 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.
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.
Denys Shleha, commander of Ukraine’s 12th National guard brigade, speaking to television on Sunday from the Azovstal plant, said several hundred civilians remained in bunkers there, including about 20 children, and that one or two additional evacuation efforts of similar scale would be needed.
‘Just the first step’
Mariupol City Council said in a post on the Telegram messaging app Sunday that evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin Monday morning, because of security concerns.
Zelenskyy’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak suggested the evacuations could go further than just the civilians holed up in the steel works.
“This is just the first step, and we will continue to take our civilians and troops out of Mariupol,” he wrote on Telegram.
Russian forces have pummelled the port city for nearly two months, turning Mariupol into a wasteland with an unknown death toll and thousands trying to survive without water, sanitation or food.
The city is under Russian control but for the Ukrainian fighters and civilians holding out underground in the Azovstal works – a vast Soviet-era plant founded under Josef Stalin and designed with a labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels to withstand attack.
Many previous efforts to arrange a ceasefire to allow residents to leave the city have broken down, with Moscow and Kyiv repeatedly blaming each other.
A leader with the Azov Battalion, the Ukrainian unit defending the steel plant, said earlier on Sunday that 20 civilians were evacuated during a ceasefire
“Twenty civilians, women and children … have been transferred to a suitable place and we hope that they will be evacuated to Zaporizhzhia, on territory controlled by Ukraine,” Sviatoslav Palamar said in a video posted on the battalion’s Telegram channel.
He reported heavy bombardment of the site overnight and said fighters were still going through the debris searching for civilians to rescue.
“All night, the enemy artillery bombarded the site,” he said.
A Red Cross representative also said 20 civilians were evacuated. Under the auspices of the UN and the Red Cross, more than 70 buses are at the plant to evacuate people.
The evacuees were taken to the village of Bezimenne, which is under the control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. From there they are to be taken to the city of Zaporizhzhia, a territory under the control of Ukraine, accompanied by UN and Red Cross vehicles, as well as Russian and Donetsk military forces.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from the town of Dobropillya, said it was unclear when the civilians would arrive in Zaporizhzhia.
“We haven’t seen proof of arrival yet in Zaporizhzhia,” he said.
The latest satellite images from the United States-based Maxar Technologies, taken on Friday, show nearly all the buildings at the steelworks have been destroyed. Some roofs have holes or are complete caved in, some buildings reduced to rubble.