A United Nations and Red Cross (ICRC) operation to evacuate desperate civilians trapped in the Azovstal steel plant in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is underway, the Spokesperson for the humanitarian affairs office in the country confirmed on Sunday.
“A safe passage operation…is ongoing today”, said Saviano Abreu, of OCHA in Ukraine, adding that the efforts are being “coordinated” by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, “in coordination with the parties to the conflict.”
According to news reports, more than 100 civilians were allowed to leave in the first phase of the operation.
Mr. Abreu said it had been agreed by Russian and Ukrainian authorities that the civilians who have been in the heavily damaged steel plant for nearly two months, “women, children and the elderly”, will be evacuated to Zaporizka, which is under Ukrainian control to the north of Mariupol.
Support for survivors
There, “they will receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services”, he said. The World Health Organization (WHO) in Ukraine, tweeted that they and other partner agencies, were “ready to receive the evacuees”, and hoping that “more evacuations will follow”.
Secretary-General António Guterres travelled to Moscow and met President Vladimir Putin early last week, securing an agreement from the Russian premier “in principle” to allow this weekend’s lifesaving operation to take place, after weeks of failed attempts to provide a safe humanitarian corridor for a mass evacuation.
After meeting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the capital Kyiv on Thursday, the urgent imperative of ending what Mr. Guterres called the “crisis within a crisis” of finally allowing civilians to leave the shattered coastal city after weeks of Russian bombardment, was the subject of “intense discussions” between the two parties.
Civilian safety, paramount
Mr. Abreu said in the statement to correspondents issued on Sunday that, the operation had begun with a UN-Red Cross convoy leaving for Mariupol on Friday, from Zaporizka, a journey of around 230 kilometres.
“As the operations are still ongoing, we will not provide further details at this point”, he said, “to guarantee the safety of the civilians and humanitarians in the convoy.”
He concluded saying that the UN “will continue to push for the safe passage out of Mariupol city for all those civilians who wish to leave. The UN is engaging actively with parties to advance these efforts.”
If the evacuees can reach safety, it would mark the first time that a convoy organised by humanitarian agencies has managed to secure the passage of civilians, who been living under fire from Russian heavy weapons and aerial bombardment, since the first days of the Russia invasion.
The death toll inside Mariupol is unknown, but the city’s mayor has reported that more than 20,000 civilians have been killed.
The last Ukrainian soldiers left defending the city, have been holed up inside the vast Soviet-era steel works - together with reportedly hundreds of civilians – which has a series of labyrinthine bunkers and tunnels, which has prevented Russian forces from securing the last pockets of resistance.