The United Nations said Sunday it is conducting a “safe passage operation” to get as many as 1,000 Ukrainian civilians out of the steel plant blockaded by Russian forces in the war-ravaged southern port city of Mariupol.
The operation, being coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross along with Russian and Ukrainian officials, began at the Azovstal steel works Saturday. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs offered no other details so as not to jeopardize the safety of the rescue operation.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted, “The 1st group of about 100 people is already heading to the controlled area. Tomorrow we’ll meet them in Zaporizhzhia.”
“Grateful to our team!” he said. “Now they, together with (the U.N.) are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant.”
Officials believe another 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remain in the plant, where they are holed up in the massive complex’s labyrinth of tunnels and passageways surrounded by Russian forces. As many as 100,000 other Ukrainian civilians may still be in the city on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov that is controlled by Russia after a two-month bombing campaign that has all but leveled it.
Initially, the Russian Defense Ministry said 46 people, a group of 25 and another totaling 21, were evacuated, while the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the steelworks, said 20 women and children were among those evacuated.
The U.N. operation came as U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and six other Democratic lawmakers made an unannounced visit Saturday to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv for a three-hour meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Pelosi was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the war-torn country since the February 24 Russian invasion that has killed thousands of fighters on both sides and thousands of Ukrainian civilians.
Later, speaking from Poland after leaving Kyiv, Pelosi said she had vowed to Zelenskyy, “We are with you until this fight is won.”
She said the congressional delegation brought him "a message of appreciation from the American people for his leadership" in fighting back against the Russian invasion. Pelosi has promised quick House passage of the new $33 billion Ukraine aid request U.S. President Joe Biden sent to Congress last week.
Republican Congressman Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told ABC’s “This Week” show that he too expects Congress to approve the new arms and humanitarian aid package, more than double the $13.6 billion in assistance Congress had already approved.
After early predictions by some military analysts that Russia would quickly overrun Ukraine and topple Zelenskyy, McCaul said he now believes Ukraine “can win it. That should be the goal.”
“I think the fighting spirit of the Ukrainians is far superior to that of the Russians,” McCaul said.
Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, told ABC, “None of [the Russians’] objectives are met. They are trying to scare Ukrainians. We have to win and we will.” She described Pelosi’s visit to Kyiv as “yet another sign of the very strong support from the United States.”
Meanwhile, Russia launched new assaults on coastal southern Ukraine and the country's eastern industrial heartland. Fighting was occurring village by village.
Zelenskyy, in his nightly video address late Saturday, warned that Russia was "gathering additional forces for new attacks against our military in the east of the country." He implored Russian troops not to fight in Ukraine, arguing that even their generals expect that thousands more of them will die.
"But why do the Russian soldiers need this? Why do their families need this?" Zelenskyy said in Russian.
The British Defense Ministry said early Sunday that Russia is trying to legitimize its control of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, through installing a pro-Russian administration.
That administration has declared a return to Ukrainian control for the city and surrounding area "impossible" and announced that the Russian ruble will be used in Kherson beginning Sunday.
The ministry said that Russian control of Kherson and its transport links will help sustain Russia’s efforts to advance to the west and north and improve Russia’s control over the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.