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What we know about the UN-led Azovstal steel plant evacuation in Mariupol

Civilians being evacuated from Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant.

Civilians have been evacuated from Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant where hundreds of residents and Ukrainian soldiers have been holed up after Russian forces captured the coastal city.

The evacuation took place overnight after a United Nations-brokered deal to allow safe passage for 100 civilians trapped inside the steel plant's bunkers.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres visited Moscow last week and had a "frank discussion" with Russian leaders about the war in Ukraine and pressured them to allow an evacuation. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week gave "in principle" approval for the operation, which was supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN. 

So what exactly do we know about the Azovstal steel plant evacuation? 

Who are the 100 evacuees?

Women and children were among the evacuees from the Azovstal steel plant. (Reuters: Azov Regiment/David Arakhamia)

Humanitarian officials have not revealed too much about the evacuees as not to jeopardise their safety and compromise the evacuation convoy. 

However, images of the operation showed most evacuees were women, children and the elderly. 

Not all civilians were evacuated from the steel plant, with hundreds still believed to be trapped in the facility's Soviet-era underground bunkers.

Some evacuees who emerged from the steel plant said they feared the bunker they were sheltering in would collapse under the ferocity of Russian bombing.

Natalia Usmanova, 37, said she was so terrified that she thought her heart would stop as Russian bombs rained down on Mariupol, sprinkling her with concrete dust.

She recalled the lack of oxygen in the shelters and the fear that had gripped the lives of people hunkered down there.

Evacuated civilian recalls the horrifying moment of evacuating steel plant.

Did they just walk out of the plant?

Video posted online by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children bundled in winter clothing being helped as they climbed up a steep pile of debris from the plant's rubble via ladders. 

Some were seen bringing their pets and bags filled with their belongings.

They were ushered onto Red Cross or Russian buses and removed from the conflict zone.

Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, which is helping defend the last section of Mariupol not occupied by the Russians, said it has been difficult to reach some wounded people in the plant. 

"There's rubble. We have no special equipment. It's hard for soldiers to pick up slabs weighing tons only with their arms," he said.

Where are the evacuees now? Where are they going?

The evacuation operation drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said the civilians were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday, local time.

"For the first time, we had two days of a ceasefire on this territory, and we managed to take out more than 100 civilians — women, children," Mr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.

People who have been stranded for nearly two months would receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services, according to UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu. 

A team from Doctors Without Borders was at a reception centre for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia on Sunday, in preparation for the UN convoy’s arrival.

Civilians also arrived on buses in a convoy, with UN and Russian military vehicles at the Russian-held village of Bezimenne, around 30 kilometres east of Mariupol, where a row of light blue tents had been set up.

Mariupol civilians flee Azovstal's bunkers.

Who's next?

It's unclear whether Red Cross and UN officials will return to the site to undertake another round of evacuations. 

On Sunday night, Denys Shlega — the commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard — said in a televised interview that several hundred civilians remain trapped, alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and "numerous" dead bodies.

"We need one or two more rounds of evacuation."

Captain Palamar called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians.

He said the presence of children and civilians makes it harder to fight, and there are many injured people in the plant.

There's not enough water, he said, and the air smells of decomposing bodies.

The fighters in the plant will continue to resist until they receive an order not to, Captain Palamar said.

"The best solution in this situation is our evacuation. Does it make a sense to continue carrying this massacre?" he asked.

What happens now?

There are reports Russian shelling continued in Mariupol immediately after the evacuation. (Reuters: Azov Regiment/David Arakhamia)

Minutes after people were evacuated from the plant, there were already reports shelling continued in Mariupol.

A Ukrainian military officer said that Russian forces resumed their shelling of the Azovstal steel plant immediately after the partial evacuation of civilians.

An aide to Mariupol's mayor said also reported renewed shelling.

"The cannonade is such that — even on the opposite side of the river — the houses are shaking," Petro Andryushenko wrote in a Telegram post.

As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol.

The steel plant is the only part of Mariupol that's not occupied by Russian forces.

Ukrainian towns deserted as fierce battle in the south east Ukraine continues.


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