By Margaryta Chornokondratenko
KYIV (Reuters) – A Ukrainian fighter holed up the city of Mariupol said on Monday that up to 200 civilians remained trapped inside bunkers in the Azovstal steel works after an evacuation operation led by the United Nations to save civilians from the site.
Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, 39, a deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, told Reuters that his fighters could hear the voices of people trapped in bunkers of the vast industrial complex.
He said they were women, children and elderly people, but that the Ukrainian forces there did not have the mechanised equipment needed to dislodge the rubble, he said.
Reuters was unable to independently verify his comments.
“We were planning to tear up the bunkers, the entrance to which is blocked, but all night into Monday naval artillery and barrel artillery were firing. All day today aviation has been working, dropping bombs,” Palamar said by Zoom.
An unknown number of civilians and Ukrainian forces have been holed up in the Azovstal steel works in the port city of Mariupol that has been devastated by weeks of Russian shelling and where Moscow has claimed control.
The southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol is vitally important to Russia’s push to secure a land corridor through to the peninsula of Crimea that Moscow annexed from Kyiv in 2014.
Some groups of civilians left Azovstal over the weekend in an evacuation organised by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the first to leave since President Vladimir Putin ordered the plant barricaded.
Despite that effort, there is no indication of a plan to pull out the Ukrainian forces holed up at Azovstal. These are thought to include members of the Azov regiment, the national guard, marines, border guards and other units.
Palamar said he hoped that other countries would act as guarantors in a deal to provide the troops there with safe passage out of the steel works.
“This situation that has now developed in Mariupol at the Azovstal plant is a great burden for the president and a great responsibility for him,” he said, referring to Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is in Kyiv.
“As commander-in-chief and as president, he (Zelenskiy) is responsible not only for the civilians who are left here, but he is also responsible for the military, responsible for those wounded soldiers who are dying here, who need emergency medical care, they need medicine, they need surgery,” he said.
(Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Gareth Jones)