By by Joshua Melvin with Emmanuel Peuchot in Kharkiv
KYIV, Ukraine: Ukrainian authorities were hoping Monday to evacuate more civilians from the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, as Russia’s offensive in the east of Ukraine continued with “active and heavy” fighting.
Kyiv said more than 100 civilians were evacuated over the weekend from the sprawling Azovstal plant, the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in Mariupol which has been surrounded by Russian forces since they invaded Ukraine on February 24.
They were awaited Monday in Ukraine-controlled Zaporizhzhia, where vehicles from UNICEF and other international NGOs were on standby.
In coordinated efforts between Ukraine, Russia and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), another evacuation had been hoped to start first thing on Monday but by lunchtime, there was no sign of movement.
Several hundred Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been sheltering in the maze of Soviet-era underground tunnels underneath the steelworks, many of whom require medical attention.
“For the first time, there were two days of real ceasefire on this territory. More than 100 civilians have already been evacuated – women and children first of all,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Sunday.
The Russian armed forces said 46 civilians had left Azovstal on Saturday, and had “voluntarily” decided to stay in the separatist region of Donetsk.
Another 80 got out on Sunday – of whom 69 left for Kyiv-controlled territory, it said. They were “handed over to UN and ICRC representatives”, the Russian ministry said earlier.
Mariupol is an important strategic hub connecting the Russian-held southern and eastern parts of Ukraine and has seen some of the worst of the fighting.
With the Russian siege leaving residents in dire conditions, with little access to food, water and medicine, the city has become emblematic of a war that has uprooted more than 13 million people from their homes and killed thousands.
‘Active and heavy fighting’
After failing to take the capital Kyiv in the first few weeks of the war, Moscow’s army has refocused on the east of Ukraine, notably the Donbas region, which includes the pro-Russian separatist areas of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Fighting is particularly intense around Izyum, Lyman and Rubizhne, as the Russians prepare their attack on Severodonetsk, the last easterly city still held by Kyiv, Ukraine’s general staff said.
“The situation in the Lugansk region can be described in a few words – active and heavy fighting continues,” the defence ministry added.
The governor of Lugansk has said he expected more intense battles ahead of May 9, the day Russia celebrates the 1945 surrender of Nazi Germany to allied forces, including the then Soviet Union.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Italian television late Sunday that Moscow’s forces “will not artificially adjust their actions to any date, including Victory Day”.
In the same interview, asked about Moscow’s stated aim with the conflict to “de-Nazify” and “de-militarise” Ukraine, Lavrov claimed that Adolf Hitler may have “had Jewish blood”.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of Israel – which has sought to keep a delicate balance between the two sides in the conflict – condemned the remarks as erroneous, “unforgivable and outrageous”.
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 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”.
On the frontline in the east, Russian troops – helped by massive use of artillery – have advanced slowly but steadily.
But Ukrainian forces have also recaptured some territory in recent days, including 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.
Meanwhile, Kyiv said Monday that its drones had sunk two Russian patrol boats near the Black Sea’s Snake Island, which became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance after soldiers there rebuffed Russian demands to surrender.
“The Bayraktars are working,” said Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, referring to Turkish-made military drones.
US eyes Kyiv return
Western powers have levelled unprecedented sanctions against Russia over the war while delivering money and weapons to Ukraine, including a $33 billion (31 billion euro) arms and support package announced by US President Joe Biden last week.
The European Union is drawing up a phased-out ban on Russian oil imports as part of fresh measures that could be put to member states as early as Wednesday, sources told AFP on Sunday.
Several diplomats said the ban on oil was made possible after a policy U-turn by Germany, which had resisted the measure as too disruptive and potentially harmful to its economy.
EU energy ministers were due to discuss the ban – which requires unanimous backing and could yet be derailed – at talks Monday in Brussels.
In a symbolic show of support, many Western nations are also reopening their embassies in Kyiv that were closed due to the invasion, with Denmark the latest to make the move Monday.
Kristina Kvien, the US charge d’affaires, announced that Washington hopes to have its diplomats back in Kyiv “by the end of the month”.
Russia has been seeking ways to push back against the growing internationalpressure.
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.