More civilians have been rescued from the tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol, a Ukrainian official said Friday, even as fighters holed up at the sprawling complex made their last stand to prevent Moscow's complete takeover of the strategic port city.
The fight in the last Ukrainian stronghold of a city reduced to ruins by the Russian onslaught appeared increasingly desperate. Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia's most recent estimate, are holed up in a vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath Azovstal steelworks – and they have repeatedly refused to surrender.
Local authorities in Mariupol accused Russian forces on Friday of opening fire on a car on its way to evacuate civilians from a vast steel works, killing a fighter and violating a cease-fire agreement, Reuters reported.
As the drama in Mariupol continued to unfold, Pope Francis on Friday called the war in Ukraine "barbarous" because of the Christian-against-Christian nature of the conflict. He made the comment to members of a Vatican office that promotes Christian unity among Catholics, Orthodox and other Christian churches.
"Today, in the face of the barbarism of war, this yearning for unity must be fueled again," he said.
Russian forces control all but the steel works in the devastated city on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. Mariupol has been repeatedly targeted by Russia during its 10-week offensive.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was Russia's attack that was keeping an estimated 200 civilians pinned down in the plant's underground bunkers.
"Just imagine this hell! And there are children there," he said late Thursday in his nightly video address. "More than two months of constant shelling, bombing, constant death."
Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier assured Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a phone call that Moscow's forces were prepared to allow safe passage for those trapped in the steel plant, with daytime pauses in fighting through Saturday.
But in an online video, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, a deputy commander of Ukraine's Azov Regiment, said, "Heavy, bloody fighting is going on. Yet again, the Russians have not kept the promise of a cease-fire and have not given an opportunity for the civilians who seek shelter ... in basements of the plant to evacuate." It was not clear from where he was speaking.
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed skepticism about Russia's commitment to a cease-fire.
"What we have consistently seen, and we've seen this even in recent days, is the tendency on the part of the Russian Federation to embrace a so-called humanitarian pause to cloak itself in the guise of an actor that has humanitarian concerns — only to quickly and promptly resume shelling and violence, including against civilians who are trapped in besieged areas, including in Mariupol."
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko told The Associated Press he did not think Russia's military action in Ukraine would "drag on this way," but he accused Ukraine of "provoking Russia" and being uninterested in peace talks. Russian forces used Belarus as a staging point ahead of their February 24 invasion, operating under the pretext of military exercises as Putin denied he would attack Ukraine.
Belarus launched its own military exercises this week, but Lukashenko said they posed no threat.
"We do not threaten anyone, and we are not going to threaten and will not do it," Lukashenko told the news agency. "Moreover, we can't threaten — we know who opposes us, so to unleash some kind of a conflict, some kind of war here in the West is absolutely not in the interests of the Belarusian state. So, the West can sleep peacefully."
Meanwhile, the World Food Program has received $26.4 million from the European Union to provide food assistance to people affected by the conflict in Ukraine and for displaced people from Ukraine in the Republic of Moldova.
WFP says over 7.7 million people are displaced inside Ukraine and almost half of the people in the country are worried about finding enough to eat.
Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Press and Reuters.