WARSAW: A new UN convoy was on Thursday heading to the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, which has seen heavy fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces, to try to evacuate civilians, its humanitarian chief said.
“Today as we speak, a convoy is proceeding to get to Azovstal by tomorrow morning hopefully to receive those civilians remaining in that bleak hell…and take them back to safety,” UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths told a Ukraine donors’ conference in Warsaw.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed “that a safe passage operation is ongoing, in coordination with the UN and the parties to the conflict”.
“The ICRC insists on the fact that no details can be shared until the situation allows, as it could seriously jeopardise the operation,” it added.
The convoy was a fresh effort after the United Nations and Red Cross said that 101 civilians were evacuated from the tunnels of the Azovstal plant in the strategic southern port city.
That marked the first completed civilian evacuation from the giant factory, where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have for weeks been trapped, as Russian forces besiege and pummel the city.
The evacuees were brought to the central city of Zaporizhzhia, which is under Ukrainian control.
The joint UN and Red Cross operation — agreed after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Moscow and Kyiv — lasted five days.
“And we’re now trying to do it for more, but it’s a sobering reminder of the difficulties… how difficult it is even to achieve these results,” Griffiths said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday his country’s army was “still ready” to allow safe passage for civilians trapped at Mariupol’s steel plant, the Kremlin said.
The Russian army had on Wednesday announced a three-day ceasefire at the Azovstal plant in Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine, saying it would allow civilians to leave.
But a commander of Ukraine’s Azov regiment, Svyatoslav Palamar, accused Russia of breaking its promise.
Speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett later on Thursday, Putin said civilians could still be allowed to leave the besieged plant but Ukrainian troops must lay down their arms.
“The Russian military is still ready to ensure the safe exit of civilians,” Putin told the Israeli prime minister, the Kremlin said.
“As for the militants remaining at Azovstal, the Kyiv authorities must give them an order to lay down their arms.” Putin and Bennett spoke amid raging tensions after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking about Ukraine, suggested that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood”.
The two leaders discussed “historic memory”, the Holocaust and expressed interest in developing ties between their two countries, the Kremlin said.
“Mutual interest was expressed in the further development of friendly Russian-Israeli relations and the maintenance of useful contacts between the leadership of the two countries,” the Kremlin said.
Putin stressed that of the six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust “40 percent were citizens of the USSR.” Bennett for his part “noted the decisive contribution of the Red Army to victory over Nazism,” the Kremlin said.
Since Putin sent troops to Ukraine on Feb 24, Israel has sought to keep a delicate balance between Moscow and Kyiv but remarks by Lavrov caused an uproar in the country.