The long-awaited effort to evacuate civilians from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway Sunday, as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed she visited Ukraine's president to show unflinching American support for the country's defense against Russian aggression. Video posted online by Ukrainian forces showed elderly women and mothers with small children bundled in winter clothing being helped as they climbed up a steep pile of debris from the plant’s rubble, and then eventually boarding a bus. UN humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu said the operation to bring civilians out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being carried out with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials, the AP reports. Pelosi, meanwhile, visited Kyiv on Saturday, the most senior American lawmaker to travel to the country since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion.
The steel plant evacuation drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said more than 100 civilians—primarily women and children—were expected to arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday. “Today, for the first time in all the days of the war, this vitally needed (humanitarian) corridor has started working,” he said in a pre-recorded address published on his Telegram channel. As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant—the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians. Later Sunday, one of the plant’s defenders said Russian forces resumed shelling the plant as soon as the evacuation of the group of civilians was completed Sunday.
Denys Shlega, the commander of the 12th Operational Brigade of Ukraine’s National Guard, said in a televised interview Sunday night that several hundred civilians remain trapped alongside nearly 500 wounded soldiers and “numerous” dead bodies. “Several dozen small children are still in the bunkers underneath the plant,” Shlega said. “We need one or two more rounds of evacuation.” The Mariupol City Council said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin Monday morning. People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have described their vehicles being fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed. (Increasingly, fires and explosions have occurred in parts of Russia that border Ukraine.)