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Ukrainian leader calls for truce to dig up civilians trapped under steel plant

  • Doesn’t add any new Azovstal evacuations, details of night fights
  • Some 200 civilians still stranded in Mariupol steelworks
  • Russia promises safe passage for civilians during the day
  • Fighting continues inside factory, Ukraine says
  • EU working on possible Russian oil ban

KYIV, May 5 (Reuters) – Civilians, including women and children, will have to be extracted from bunkers under a steelworks that is the last stronghold of resistance in Ukraine’s Mariupol, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday, as Russian forces continued their assault.

After failing to capture the capital kyiv in the first weeks of a war that killed thousands and destroyed towns and villages, Russia has stepped up its attacks in southern and eastern Ukraine.

The Russian military said it would suspend military activity at the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol during Thursday and the following two days to allow civilians to leave.

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In a morning address, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was ready to secure a ceasefire in Mariupol.

“It will take time to just get people out of these basements, these underground shelters. Under current conditions, we cannot use heavy equipment to clear the rubble. Everything has to be done by hand,” said said Zelenskiy.

Ukrainian fighters inside Azovstal are fighting “difficult and bloody battles” against Russian troops, Denis Prokopenko, commander of the Ukrainian regiment in Azov, said Wednesday evening.

Ukraine’s military staff said Russia’s assault on the sprawling Soviet-era factory included air support.

Moscow declared victory in Mariupol on April 21 after weeks of siege and bombardment, but resistance from Ukrainian forces in Azovstal prevented Russia from fully invading the city.

Mariupol is a major target of Russia’s efforts to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea – vital for its grain and metal exports – and connect Russian-held territory in the east of the country to Crimea, seized by Moscow in 2014.

EVACUATIONS

The United Nations and the Red Cross evacuated hundreds of people from Mariupol and other areas this week. But around 200 civilians, as well as Ukrainian fighters, are still locked in a network of underground bunkers in Azovstal, according to Ukrainian officials.

More than 300 civilians were evacuated from Mariupol and other parts of southern Ukraine on Wednesday in a joint UN and Red Cross operation, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine, Osnat Lubrani.

But no one from Azovstal was part of the group, said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian office.

“We are concerned that more civilians may be trapped there, however, and we stand ready to help,” Laerke said in an email.

Tetyana Trotsak, one of dozens of Azovstal evacuees who reached a Ukrainian-controlled town this week, expressed fear for those still trapped inside the steelworks.

“God forbid more shells hit near the bunkers where the civilians are,” Trotsak said.

BATTLES

Elsewhere, Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern region of Donetsk, in which Mariupol is located, said at least 25 civilians were injured when Russian forces shelled Kramatorsk, a town which in April suffered a missile strike on a train station that killed dozens of evacuated civilians.

A school and a kindergarten were badly damaged in the new attack, the town’s mayor said. Reuters could not independently verify casualties or damage.

More than five million Ukrainians have fled abroad since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on February 24. Millions more are displaced inside Ukraine.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and that the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.

As Western military aid to Ukraine pours into the country, the United States has also provided crucial intelligence that has helped Ukrainian forces kill Russian generals, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Read more

Washington provided Ukraine with details of the location of Russian mobile military headquarters, allowing Ukrainian forces to strike those targets, the newspaper said, citing senior US officials.

The Pentagon and White House did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment on the report.

Ukrainian officials said they killed about 12 Russian generals on the battlefield, according to The New York Times.

Ukraine’s military said Thursday that its forces repelled 11 Russian attacks, shot down four Russian planes and destroyed more than a dozen Russian military vehicles, including tanks.

Russian missile strikes in recent days have included railway stations in an effort to ban Western arms transfers.

OIL BAN?

The United States and its European allies imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow following the invasion and provided Ukraine with billions of dollars in aid, including weapons.

A source said European Union envoys could reach agreement as early as Thursday on a plan to phase out imports of Russian crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of this year. It requires the agreement of all 27 EU governments. Read more

The plan also targets Russia’s top bank, its broadcasters and hundreds of people. It would follow US and UK oil bans and be a turning point for the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, which remains dependent on Russian energy and must find alternative supplies.

The Kremlin said Russia was weighing various responses to the EU plan, which it said would be costly for European citizens.

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Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Reuters offices; Written by Rami Ayyub and Frank Jack Daniel Editing by Michael Perry and Gareth Jones

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