By Alessandra Prentice
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) -Buses carrying some of the last weary civilian evacuees from the besieged Azovstal steel works reached Ukrainian-controlled territory on Sunday – the culmination of an international effort to extricate people trapped in bunkers under the Mariupol plant.
The convoy arrived in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia after dark, carrying around 175 evacuees. They included some 40 people who had been holed up for weeks alongside Ukrainian forces under heavy bombardment in Azovstal’s vast network of underground shelters.
Many children and elderly people were among the exhausted-looking arrivals, who were shepherded off the buses and into a large tent where they were offered tea and a hot meal.
“I just want to live and start again … everything I have is here,” said Yegor Chekhonadsky, pointing to a cluster of bags at his feet.
He, his wife and two sons had sheltered at Azovstal since early March. “Of course I’m overjoyed, and happy to be in Ukraine.”
Mariupol has endured the most destructive fighting of the 10-week-old war. The plant is the last part of the city – a strategic southern port on the Azov Sea – still in the hands of Ukrainian fighters. Scores of civilians were trapped for weeks alongside them in the plant with little food, water or medicine.
“It was a living hell to be in those bunkers with constant shelling,” said Osnat Lubrani, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.
“Families had one meal a day and some shared that with their dog or cat,” she told reporters in the Zaporizhzhia car park as evacuees clambered off the buses laden with suitcases, some holding small children tightly by the hand.
Their evacuation, brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), began last weekend but was hampered by renewed fighting.
Lubrani said more than 600 people had evacuated Mariupol in the past 10 days, but that there were scores more who had not been able to join the convoys over the last few days.
Ukraine has said all women, children and elderly civilians have now left Azovstal, while Russia has said the evacuation of civilians from the plant is complete.
Earlier on Sunday, the remaining Ukrainian fighters at the plant vowed to continue their stand as long as they are alive.
“We don’t have much time,” Captain Sviatoslav Palamar told an online news conference, pleading with the international community to help evacuate wounded soldiers.
(Editing by Ron Popeski, Andrea Ricci, Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis)