Women, children and elderly citizens of Mariupol hiding in the Azovstal steel plant have been evacuated after weeks of relentless Russian bombardment.
All women, children and elderly civilians have been evacuated from the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said early Sunday Australian time, despite what military officers said was an ongoing Russian assault at the plant.
“This part of the Mariupol humanitarian operation is over,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on the Telegram messaging app on early Sunday Australian time.
The evacuation comes as the head of the CIA, said the US intelligence agency believes Russian Vladimir Putin believes he “can’t afford to lose” his offensive in Ukraine.
CIA director Bill Burns was quoted by French news agency AFP as saying that the US was remaining “sharply focused” on the possibility of a Russian nuclear strike.
Symbol of resistance
The Soviet-era Azovstal steel mill, the last holdout in Mariupol for Ukrainian forces, has emerged as a symbol of resistance to the wider Russian effort to capture swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Under heavy bombardment, fighters and civilians have been trapped for weeks in deep bunkers and tunnels that criss-cross the site.
Russian forces backed by tanks and artillery tried again on Saturday to storm Azovstal, Ukraine’s military command said, part of a ferocious assault to dislodge the last Ukrainian defenders in the strategic port city on the Azov Sea.
Mariupol has been left in ruins by weeks of Russian bombardment. Several groups of civilians have left the sprawling steel complex during pauses in fighting over the past week.
Earlier on Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited Moscow-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk region as saying that 50 more people had been evacuated from the besieged steelworks.
However, by the afternoon, Reuters journalists had not seen any sign of their arrival at a reception centre in separatist-controlled territory near Mariupol.
The separatists said a total of 176 civilians had now been evacuated from the plant.
Evacuations of civilians from the Azovstal plant – brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – began last weekend. But they were halted during the week by renewed fighting.
The city’s mayor estimated earlier this week that 200 civilians were trapped at the plant.
It was not clear after the deputy prime minister’s statement on Saturday if civilian men were still in the complex.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a late-night video address on Friday that Ukraine was also working on a diplomatic effort to save fighters barricaded inside the steel works. It was unclear how many fighters remained there.
The fighters have vowed not to surrender. Ukrainian officials fear Russian forces want to wipe them out by Monday, in time for Moscow’s commemorations of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.
President Putin declared victory in Mariupol on April 21, ordered the plant sealed off and called for Ukrainian forces inside to disarm. But Russia later resumed its assault on the plant.
Can’t afford to lose
Despite the failure of Russian forces to capture Kyiv and their struggle to advance along the war’s main frontlines in the southeastern Donbas region, the President Putin has not changed his view that his troops can defeat Ukraine, CIA director Burns said.
“I think he’s in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose,” he added.
Mr Putin has not been deterred by the resistance in the war “because he staked so much on the choices that he made to launch this invasion,” Mr Burns said.
Russia placed its nuclear forces on high alert shortly after launching the Ukraine invasion on February 24.
“We don’t see, as an intelligence community, practical evidence at this point of Russian planning for the deployment or even potential use of tactical nuclear weapons,” Mr Burns said.
“So we stay very sharply focused as an intelligence service … on those possibilities at a moment when the stakes are very high for Russia,” he said.