Civilians evacuated from Azovstal plant – Reuters photographer

Civilians who left the area near Azovstal steel plant in
Civilians who left the area near Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol walk at a temporary accommodation centre in Bezimenne

BEZIMENNE, Ukraine (Reuters) -More than 50 civilians were evacuated on Sunday from Mariupol’s Azovstal steel works in a convoy with vehicles bearing United Nations symbols, signalling a deal had been struck to ease the ordeal of the most destructive siege in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

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The siege of Mariupol, in which Russian and Ukrainian forces have pummelled each other for nearly two months, has turned the port city into a wasteland with an unknown death toll and thousands trying to survive without water, sanitation or food.

The city is under Russian control but some fighters and civilians remain holed up in the Azovstal works – a vast Soviet-era plant founded under Josef Stalin and designed with a labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels to withstand attack.

In one of the first major signs of an evacuation deal, a group of around 40 civilians arrived on Sunday at a temporary accommodation centre after leaving the area around the Azovstal plant, a Reuters photographer said.

Reuters photographs showed the civilians arriving in the village of Bezimenne in the Russian-backed Donetsk Region, around 30 km east (20 miles) of Mariupol, with Ukrainian number plates in a convoy with Russian forces and vehicles with United Nations symbols.

Later, another group, numbering around 14 people, arrived at the accommodation centre, the Reuters photographer said.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said after meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on Thursday that intense discussions were under way to enable the evacuation of Azovstal.

A United Nations spokesman said he was unable to comment immediately. An aide to the mayor of Mariupol declared a period of silence, pending official statements about the evacuations.

Pope Francis on Sunday described the war in Ukraine as a “macabre regression of humanity” that makes him “suffer and cry”, calling for humanitarian corridors to evacuate people trapped in the Mariupol steelworks.

Two groups of civilians left the residential area around the Azovstal works on Saturday, the Russian defence ministry said on Sunday.

A video released by Russia’s defence ministry on Sunday showed vehicles bearing United Nations and Red Cross symbols. Reuters was unable to verify the defence ministry video.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the “special military operation” is necessary because the United States was using Ukraine to threaten Russia and Moscow had to defend Russian-speakers against persecution.

He says Ukraine and Russia are essentially one country. Ukraine says it is fighting an imperialist land grab by Russia and that Putin’s claims of genocide are nonsense.

(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan)