A complex rescue operation is under way to evacuate civilians who have been trapped in the Mariupol steelworks with dwindling supplies of food, water and medicine and surrounded by Russians.
The first 100 civilians, including children, have been moved from the sprawling Azovstal steelworks in the “safe passage operation” jointly co-ordinated by the United Nations, Red Cross, Ukraine and Russia.
The vast Soviet-era plant founded under Josef Stalin was designed with a labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels to withstand attack.
Some civilians were photographed arriving in the village of Bezimenne in an area of Donetsk under the control of Russia-backed separatists around 30km east of Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also tweeted that a group of evacuees was on its way to Zaporizhzhia, which remains under Ukraine control.
The UN confirmed the operation was ongoing.
“At this point, and as the operations are underway, we will not share further details, as it could jeopardise the safety of the civilians and the convoy,” UN spokesperson Saviano Abreu said.
There have been an estimated 1,000 civilians and more than 500 wounded soldiers bunkered down in the damaged plant which is the last part of the port city under Ukrainian control.
Elsewhere in Mariupol, which lies in ruins after two months of intense Russian bombardment, officials estimate 100,000 who remained from a population of 450,000 are living without access to food, water and communications.
Mayor Vadym Boychenko, who is no longer in Mariupol, told the BBC: “The citizens who left the city say that hell exists and it’s in Mariupol.”
Meanwhile US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the highest ranking US official to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.
Meeting with Mr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ms Pelosi said Ukraine was “fighting for everyone” and vowed that America would to continue support for Ukraine.
“We’re there for the fight and you cannot fold to a bully,” she said.
Footage posted by Mr Zelensky on Twitter showed him greeting a congressional delegation led by Ms Pelosi outside his presidential office the previous day.
“Our delegation travelled to Kyiv to send an unmistakable and resounding message to the entire world: America stands firmly with Ukraine,” Ms Pelosi said in a statement.
She condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “diabolic invasion”.
Ms Pelosi said she hoped to pass a $US33 billion ($47 billion) aid package for Ukraine that President Joe Biden had requested “as soon as possible”.
Another high-profile American — actor and special envoy for the UN refugee agency Angelina Jolie — also made a surprise visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to highlight the plight of children.
* “They must be in shock … I know how trauma affects children, I know just having somebody show how much they matter, how much their voices matter, I know how healing that is for them,” said Jolie, speaking about children displaced by war.
Oligarch wealth to fund Ukraine
The US is working on its plan to seize Russian oligarchs’ assets and send the money raised to help the effort in Ukraine.
The provision would be included in the $US33 billion ($47 billion) Ukraine aid package.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the Biden administration had asked MPs to insert provisions into the new aid bill to help it seize assets, liquidate them and send Ukraine the money.
“Ukraine needs all the help it can get and, at the same time, we need all the assets we can put together to give Ukraine the aid it needs,” said Senator Schumer.
Mr Biden asked Congress to approve $US33 billion ($47 billion) in assistance for Kyiv on Thursday in what would mark a dramatic escalation of US funding for Ukraine more than two months after it was invaded by Russia.
The US House of Representatives signalled its support for giving the administration more power to target oligarchs profiting from their association with Russian President Vladimir Putin when it approved non-binding legislation on Wednesday.
The $US33 billion ($47 billion) in funding for Ukraine, which lawmakers have said they want to approve quickly, would be used to provide weapons, ammunition and other military assistance, as well as direct economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday it had carried out a missile strike on a military airfield near the port city of Odesa, destroying a runway and a hangar containing weapons and ammunition supplied to Ukraine by the United States and European countries.
On Saturday, Ukraine said Russian missiles had knocked out a newly constructed runway at Odesa’s main airport.
It was unclear if they were referring to the same incident and Reuters could not immediately verify the reports.
Russia’s defence ministry accused Ukraine’s forces of shelling a school, kindergarten and cemetery in villages in the occupied southern Kherson region, the Russian RIA news agency said on Sunday.
The ministry said civilians had been killed and wounded but gave no further details. There was no immediate response from Ukraine and Reuters could not independently verify the report.
Russian forces captured the town of Kherson, 100 km north of Russian-annexed Crimea, in March and since then have mostly occupied Mariupol, a strategic eastern port city on the Azov Sea.
Ukraine’s military said in a bulletin on Sunday that Russian forces were fighting to break beyond Kherson’s administrative borders and prepare the way for attacks on the cities of Mykolayiv and Kryvyi Rih.
In the east, Moscow is pushing for complete control of the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists already controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces before the invasion.