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Dozens of civilians evacuated from besieged Mariupol steel plant

Joshua Melvin - Agence France-Presse
Dozens of civilians evacuated from besieged Mariupol steel plant
Smoke rises from the grounds of the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol on April 29, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine.
AFP / Andrey BORODULIN

KYIV, Ukraine — Roughly 100 civilians have been evacuated from a besieged steel plant in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sunday.

The UN said earlier that a "safe passage operation" was going on at the Azovstal plant, the last holdout in the port city that has endured a Russian blockade since the conflict began on February 24, while the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was "currently participating" in the operation.

Russia's defence ministry gave a lower figure of 80 civilians, adding: "Those who wished to leave for areas controlled by the Kyiv regime were handed over to UN and ICRC (Red Cross) representatives."

Neither the UN or the ICRC have said how many civilians they are transporting and it was not immediately clear why the sides had given different figures. 

Thousands have been killed and millions displaced since Russia's invasion, and stories of the harsh conditions in besieged Mariupol have horrified the world.

"Today we finally managed to start the evacuation of people from Azovstal," Zelensky said in a video address, adding that they were due to arrive in Ukraine-controlled Zaporizhzhia on Monday.

"For the first time there were two days of real ceasefire on this territory. More than a hundred civilians have already been evacuated — women and children first of all."

He said he hoped the evacuations could continue Monday, adding: "We plan to start at 8 am (0600 GMT)."

One Russian news report put the number of civilians still in the plant at more than 500.

The Russian defence ministry earlier confirmed that civilians were leaving, releasing a video that showed cars and buses travelling in the dark marked with a "Z", the letter used by the Russian forces in the conflict.

'Do not be bullied'

Western powers have rushed to send military aid to Ukraine and imposed heavy sanctions on Russia.

"Do not be bullied by bullies," US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters at a news conference in Rzeszow in southern Poland on Sunday after returning from Ukraine.

"If they are making threats, you cannot back down."

Pelosi met Zelensky on Saturday, becoming the most senior US figure to visit since the war began. She promised to enact the $33-billion (31-billion-euro) arms and support package announced by US President Joe Biden last week.

Western powers have hit Russia with unprecedented sanctions, and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Sunday more measures were in the pipeline.

"We must use our economic and financial abilities to make Russia pay the price for what it is doing," he said.

Diplomats in Brussels said the EU would propose phasing in a ban on Russian oil imports over a period of six to eight months. 

Russia has been seeking ways to push back against the growing international pressure.

The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, suggested Moscow could seize Russia-based assets of countries it deems hostile. "It is fair to take reciprocal measures," he said.

Russian ruble introduced

The conflict in Ukraine has been most intense in the east and south, although there have been Russian missile strikes across the country, mainly targeting infrastructure and supply lines.

Four civilians were killed by Russian shelling in the town of Lyman on Sunday, and another in a nearby town, as Moscow's forces push deeper into the eastern Donetsk region, regional governor Pavlo Krylenko said.

And three people died in the shelling of residential areas in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv, regional governor Oleg Synegubov said on Telegram.

Russia has moved to solidify its grip on areas it controls and from Sunday introduced the Russian ruble in the region of Kherson — initially to be used alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.

"Beginning May 1, we will move to the ruble zone," Kirill Stremousov, a civilian and military administrator of Kherson, was cited as saying earlier by Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti.

He said the hryvnia could be used during a four-month period, but then "we will completely switch to settlements in rubles".

'Guard the line'

On the front line in the east, Russian troops — helped by massive use of artillery — have advanced slowly but steadily in some areas. 

But Ukrainian forces have also recaptured some territory in recent days, particularly around Kharkiv.

One of the areas taken back from Russian control was the village of Ruska Lozova, which evacuees said had been occupied for two months.

"It was two months of terrible fear. Nothing else, a terrible and relentless fear," Natalia, a 28-year-old evacuee from Ruska Lozova, told AFP after reaching Kharkiv.

Kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a string of villages in the Donbas region and has asked Western powers to deliver more heavy weapons to bolster its defences there.

"Everyone understands that we must guard the line here," Lieutenant Yevgen Samoylov of the 81st Brigade told AFP as his unit rotated away from the front line near the town of Sviatogirsk.

"We cannot let the enemy move closer. We try to hold it with all our force." 

MARIUPOL

UKRAINE

UKRAINE-RUSSIA CRISIS

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 30, 2022 - 3:01pm

President Vladimir Putin says he hopes that Moscow and the West could find a solution to the raging security crisis over Ukraine, but also accused Washington of using Kyiv as a "tool" against Russia.

"I hope that in the end we will find a solution, although it will not be simple," Putin says, indicating he was ready for more talks with the West, which has accused Moscow of massing more than 100,000 troops on the border and plotting to invade Ukraine.

"It seems to me that the United States is not so much concerned about the security of Ukraine... but its main task is to contain Russia's development," Putin says. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 3:01pm

A ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain has sailed from Ukraine's port of Berdyansk, currently controlled by Russian forces, the region's Moscow-appointed official said on Thursday.

"After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tonnes of grain are heading toward friendly countries," Evgeny Balitski, the head of the pro-Russia administration, said on Telegram. — AFP

June 30, 2022 - 8:46am

Britain pledges another $1.2 billion in military aid to Ukraine to help it fend off Russia's invasion, including air-defense systems and drones.

The fresh funds will bring Britain's total military support to Kyiv since the start of the war in late February to £2.3 billion, Downing Street says in a statement. — AFP

June 28, 2022 - 8:16am

A Russian missile strike on a crowded mall in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk killed at least 16 people, the head of emergency services says early Tuesday, sparking international outrage.

"The Russian strike today on the shopping centre in Kremenchuk is one of the most brazen terrorist acts in European history," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening broadcast posted on Telegram.

"As of now, we know of 16 dead and 59 wounded, 25 of them hospitalised. The information is being updated," emergency services chief Sergiy Kruk says. — AFP

June 27, 2022 - 1:20pm

A former South Korean Navy SEAL turned YouTuber who risked jail time to leave Seoul and fight for Ukraine says it would have been a "crime" not to use his skills to help.

Ken Rhee, an ex-special warfare officer, signed up at the Ukrainian Embassy in Seoul the moment President Volodymyr Zelensky asked for global volunteers and was fighting on the front lines near Kyiv by early March.

To get there, he had to break South Korean law — Seoul banned its citizens from travelling to Ukraine, and Rhee, who was injured in a fall while leading a special operations patrol there, was met at the airport by 15 police officers on his return.

But the celebrity ex-soldier, who has a YouTube channel with 700,000 followers and documented much of his Ukraine experience on his popular Instagram account, says he has no regrets.

"You're walking down the beach and you see a sign by the water saying 'no swimming' — but you see someone drowning. It's a crime not to help. That's how I see it," he told AFP.

Rhee was born in South Korea but raised in the United States. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and planned to join the US Navy SEALS, but his father — a "patriot", he says — convinced his son to return to South Korea to enlist.

He served for seven years, undergoing both US and Korean SEAL training and doing multiple stints in war zones in Somalia and Iraq before leaving to set up a defence consultancy.

"I have the skillset. I have the experience. I was in two different wars, and going to Ukraine, I knew I could help," he said, adding that he viewed breaking South Korea's passport law to leave as equivalent to a "traffic violation". — AFP

June 26, 2022 - 2:40pm

Indonesian President and G20 chairman Joko Widodo set off on Sunday to Europe where he said he plans to visit Russia and Ukraine and meet with the countries' leaders to urge peace talks. 

Widodo departed for Germany to attend as a guest for the G7 summit from June 26 to 27, and he will then go to the Ukraine capital Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

"The mission is to ask... President Zelensky to open a dialogue forum for peace, to build peace because the war has to be stopped," he told a press conference in Jakarta. 

The two leaders will also discuss the food supply chain "that needs to be reactivated" soon, Widodo said. From Kyiv, Widodo is scheduled to visit Moscow and meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin. 

The visit to Moscow is planned for June 30, Indonesian authorities said earlier. — AFP

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