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 Ukrainian resistance — and a key target of relentless Russian bombardment since the war started in February. Approximately 1,000 civilians have been sheltering in the tunnel complex underneath the plant, Ukrainian military officials say.
Last week, Ukrainian forces said Russian troops had bombed a field hospital in the plant, and about 600 people, including civilians, were wounded in the attack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that 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 needed green corridor has started working,” 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-upon evacuation routes.
Video posted online Sunday showed Ukrainian forces helping women and children climb over a steep pile of rubble at the steel plant. They then boarded a bus, part of a United Nations-backed convoy organized to assist in the civilian evacuation.
According to Reuters, Russian forces resumed shelling the plant after the convoy of buses departed.
Hundreds of civilians who remain trapped in the Azovstal complex 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 U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 2,899 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since Feb. 24, when Russia's invasion began. But the agency believes the actual death toll is probably 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 choked 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 rubble.