Evacuation efforts are underway for hundreds of Ukrainian civilians who have been sheltering for months inside the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol, officials said Monday.
The giant factory has become a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance and a key target of relentless Russian bombardment since the war began in February. About 1,000 civilians have taken refuge in the tunnel complex below the plant, Ukrainian military officials say.
Last week, Ukrainian forces said Russian troops had shelled a field hospital at the plant and some 600 people, including civilians, were injured in the attack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said more than 100 civilians from the plant were expected to arrive in the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday.
“Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally necessary green corridor has begun to function,” Zelensky said.
Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the strategic port city have failed, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russian forces of shelling agreed evacuation routes.
A video posted online on Sunday showed Ukrainian forces helping women and children climb a steep pile of rubble at the steel plant. They then boarded a bus, part of a United Nations-backed convoy organized to help evacuate civilians.
According to Reuters, Russian forces resumed shelling the plant after the bus convoy left.
Hundreds of civilians still trapped in the Azovstal compound are said to be running out of water, food and medicine. “The situation has become a sign of a real humanitarian catastrophe,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 2,899 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since February 24, when the Russian invasion began. But the agency believes the true death toll is likely to be much higher.
The mayor of Mariupol has estimated that more than 20,000 civilians have been killed in his city alone. A Russian blockade has cut off food, water and other supplies from the once-bustling seaport that occupies a strategic position between the Russian mainland and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. The city is now reduced to debris.