ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The first civilians evacuated from the bombed-out steel plant that has become the last stronghold of Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol slowly made their way toward safety Monday, as others who managed to escape the city described terrifying weeks of bombardment and deprivation.
More than 100 civilians — including elderly women and mothers with small children — left the sprawling, rubble-strewn Azovstal steel mill on Sunday and set out in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, according to authorities and video released by the two sides.
Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that the evacuees were making slow progress and would probably not arrive on Monday as hoped for. Authorities gave no explanation for the delay.
At least some of the civilians were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The Russian military said that some chose to stay in separatist areas, while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory.
In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow’s troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia or Russian-controlled areas. The Kremlin has denied it.
Orlov said high-level negotiations were underway among Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on more evacuations.
The steel-plant evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in easing the human cost of the almost 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the southern port city and other places have broken down, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russian forces of shooting and shelling along agreed-on evacuation routes.
Before the weekend evacuation, overseen by the United Nations and the Red Cross during a brief cease-fire around the steelworks, about 1,000 civilians were believed to be in the plant, along with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian defenders. Russia has demanded that the fighters surrender; they have refused.
As many as 100,000 people overall may still be in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000. Russian forces have pounded much of the city to rubble, trapping civilians with little food, water, heat or medicine.
Some Mariupol residents got out of the city on their own, by way of often damaged private cars.
As sunset approached, Mariupol resident Yaroslav Dmytryshyn rattled up to a reception center in Zaporizhzhia in a car with a back seat full of youngsters and two signs taped to the back window: “Children” and “Little ones.”
“I can’t believe we survived,” he said, looking worn but in good spirits over their safe arrival after two days on the road.
“There is no Mariupol whatsoever,” he said. “Someone needs to rebuild it, and it will take millions of tons of gold.” He said they lived just across the railroad tracks from the steel plant. “Ruined,” he said. “The factory is gone completely.”
Anastasiia Dembytska, who took advantage of the cease-fire to leave with her daughter, nephew and dog, said her family survived by cooking on a makeshift stove and drinking well water. She said she could see the steelworks from her window, when she dared to look out.
“We could see the rockets flying” and clouds of smoke over the plant, she said.
A majority of the dozen Russian battalion tactical groups that had been around Mariupol have moved north to other battlefronts in eastern Ukraine, according to a senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the Pentagon’s assessment. The official said Russian forces made minimal gains over the weekend.
In other developments, European Union energy ministers met Monday to discuss new sanctions against the Kremlin, which could include restrictions on Russian oil. But some Russia-dependent members of the 27-nation bloc, including Hungary and Slovakia, are wary of taking tough action.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he hoped more people would be able to leave Mariupol in an organized evacuation on Monday. The city council told residents wanting to leave to gather at a shopping mall to wait for buses.
Zelenskyy told Greek state television that remaining civilians in the steel plant were afraid to board buses because they feared they would be taken to taken to Russia. He said he had been assured by the U.N. that they would be allowed to go to areas his government controls.
In the wake of the evacuation from the plant, Russian forces resumed shelling there Sunday, according to one of the defenders.
Denys Shlega, commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview that several hundred civilians remained trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” bodies.
“Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said.
Thwarted in his bid to seize Kyiv, the capital, President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus to the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Russia said it struck dozens of military targets in the region in the past day alone. It said it hit concentrations of troops and weapons and an ammunition depot near Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region, which lies west of the Donbas.
Ukrainian and Western officials say Moscow’s troops are raining fire indiscriminately, taking a heavy toll on civilians while making only slow progress.
Zelenskyy’s office said at least three people were killed in the Donbas in the previous 24 hours. The regional administration in Zaporizhzhia reported that at least two people died in Russian shelling.
The governor of the Odesa region along the Black Sea Coast, Maksym Marchenko, said on the Telegram messaging app that a Russian missile strike on an Odesa infrastructure target caused deaths and injuries. He gave no details.
Ukraine claimed to have destroyed two small Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea. Drone footage online showed what the Ukrainians described as two Russian Raptor boats exploding after being struck by missiles.
Mariupol, which lies in the Donbas, is key to Russia’s campaign in the east. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops for fighting elsewhere in the region.
A full picture of the battle unfolding in eastern Ukraine is hard to capture. The fighting makes it dangerous for reporters to move around, and both sides have imposed tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.
But Britain’s Defense Ministry said it believes more than a quarter of all the fighting units Russia has deployed in Ukraine are now “combat ineffective” — unable to fight because of loss of troops or equipment.
Ukraine said Russia also struck a strategic road and rail bridge west of Odesa. The bridge was heavily damaged in previous Russian strikes, and its destruction would cut a supply route for weapons and other cargo from neighboring Romania.