(AP) — Russia resumed pulverizing the Mariupol steel mill that has become the last stronghold of resistance in the bombed-out city, Ukrainian fighters said Monday, after a brief cease-fire over the weekend allowed the first evacuation of civilians from the plant.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. official warned that Russia is planning to annex large portions of eastern Ukraine this month and recognize the southern city of Kherson as an independent republic.
Michael Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said that those suspected actions are “straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook” and will not be recognized by the United States or its allies.
In Mariupol, more than 100 people — including elderly women and mothers with small children — left the rubble-strewn Azovstal steelworks on Sunday and set out in buses and ambulances for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) to the northwest, according to authorities and video released by the two sides.
Mariupol Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told the BBC that the evacuees were making slow progress and would probably not arrive in Zaporizhzhia on Monday as hoped. Authorities gave no explanation for the delay.
At least some of the civilians were apparently taken to a village controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The Russian military said some chose to stay in separatist areas, while dozens left for Ukrainian-held territory.
In the past, Ukraine has accused Moscow’s troops of taking civilians against their will to Russia or Russian-controlled areas. The Kremlin has denied it.
The Russian bombardment of the sprawling plant by air, tank and ship picked up again after the partial evacuation, Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, which is helping to defend the mill, said on the Telegram messaging app.
Orlov said high-level negotiations were underway among Ukraine, Russia and international organizations on evacuating more people.
The steel-plant evacuation, if successful, would represent rare progress in easing the human cost of the almost 10-week war, which has caused particular suffering in Mariupol. Previous attempts to open safe corridors out of the southern port city and other places have broken down, with Ukrainian officials accusing Russian forces of shooting and shelling along agreed-on evacuation routes.