A third United Nations operation was under way on Friday morning to evacuate Ukrainian civilians from the Russian-besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, which the UN secretary general has described as a series of “hellscapes”.
An estimated 200 civilians, along with Ukrainian resistance fighters, remained trapped in underground refuges at the huge industrial complex. The UN humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, said a convoy was headed to Azovstal “to receive those civilians remaining in that bleak hell … and take them back to safety”.
The Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said people would be evacuated from Mariupol at midday local time on Friday. The UN and the Red Cross said they had so far helped nearly 500 civilians flee the steel plant area in the southern port city during two operations in the past week.
It came as Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia’s invasion had devastated hundreds of hospitals and other medical institutions and left doctors without drugs to tackle cancer or the ability to perform surgery.
Zelenskiy said that in eastern and southern Ukraine, the main battlefields, many places lacked even basic antibiotics. “If you consider just medical infrastructure, as of today Russian troops have destroyed or damaged nearly 400 healthcare institutions: hospitals, maternity wards, outpatient clinics,” Zelenskiy said in a video address to a medical charity group.
In areas occupied by Russian forces the situation was catastrophic, he said. “This amounts to a complete lack of medication for cancer patients. It means extreme difficulties or a complete lack of insulin for diabetes. It is impossible to carry out surgery. It even means, quite simply, a lack of antibiotics.”
Russia has unleashed heavy artillery barrages against multiple Ukrainian positions in the south and east of the country. As Victory Day, 9 May, approaches in Russia, it is thought that Vladimir Putin wants to present the occupation of Mariupol for propaganda at home. Ukrainian soldiers said fighting continued to rage, with Russian forces making a final push to enter the steelworks and subdue the city’s final defenders.
Kremlin officials and propagandists have flocked to Mariupol before Victory Day with cleaning crews clearing rubble and patriotic statues to Russia being erected. Ukrainian intelligence said Russia was planning to hold part of its key parade in the city.
“Mariupol, according to [Russia’s] plans, should become the centre of ‘celebrations’,” Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency said. “For this purpose, the city is urgently cleaning the central streets from rubble, bodies of dead and unexploded Russian ammunition.”
The Russian president proclaimed victory in broader Mariupol on 21 April and ordered the steel plant sealed off. The Kremlin said Putin had demanded that Ukrainian fighters in Azovstal to surrender in return for safe passage of civilians.
A Ukrainian fighter who said he was holed up in Azovstal accused Russian forces of breaching the plant’s defences for a third day despite the pledge by Moscow to pause military activity to permit civilian evacuations.
“Heavy, bloody fighting is going on,” said Captain Sviatoslav Palamar of Ukraine’s Azov regiment. “Yet again, the Russians have not kept the promise of a ceasefire.” Reuters could not independently verify his account or location. The official Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, reiterated a claim that Putin had ordered his military not to storm the plant.
Ukraine’s stubborn defence of Azovstal has underlined Russia’s failure to take major cities in a 10-week-old war that has united western powers in arming Kyiv and punishing Moscow with sanctions.
In other key developments:
Ukraine is “unlikely” to be able to launch a counter-offensive before mid-June, when it hopes to have received more weapons from its allies, an adviser to Zelenskiy has said. Oleksiy Arestovych added that he did not expect Russia’s offensive in Ukraine to produce any “significant results” by 9 May.
The US has said it it shared intelligence with Ukraine about the location of the Russian missile cruiser Moskva prior to the strike that sank the warship, but said the decision to attack was taken by the Ukrainians.
The US defence department also denied providing intelligence on the locations of Russian generals on the battlefield so that Ukrainian forces could kill them.
European Union countries are “almost there” in agreeing the bloc’s proposed new package of sanctions against Russia, including an oil embargo, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Thursday.
UN secretary-general António Guterres urged the world to unite and end the war in Ukraine, calling it senseless, ruthless and “limitless in its potential for global harm”. The top UN human rights official said even a one-day cease-fire would prevent dozens of civilian deaths.