Scores of civilians remain trapped in underground bunkers in the Azovstal steelworks, the last holdout in the devastated city of Mariupol.
Russia’s military promised to pause its activity in Azovstal during Thursday and the following two days to allow civilians to leave, after what Ukrainian fighters described as “bloody battles” prevented evacuations. The Kremlin said humanitarian corridors from the plant were in place.
However, nobody from Azovstal was among more than 300 civilians evacuated on Wednesday from Mariupol and other areas in southern Ukraine, the UN humanitarian office said.
A Ukrainian fighter holed up in the steel works accused Russian forces of breaking a ceasefire promise on Thursday, which would allow civilians to be evacuated from the area.
Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, a deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov regiment, posted a video online that purported to be shot in the Azovstal steel works where Mariupol’s last defenders are holding out with an estimated 200 civilians.
Ukrainian and Russian forces are engaged in “bloody battles” at the plant, the last pocket of resistance in the pulverised city.
The claim was made by a commander in the Azov regiment, Denis Prokopenko, who posted a brief video message posted to Telegram stating: “I am proud of my soldiers who are making superhuman efforts to contain the pressure of the enemy … the situation is extremely difficult.”
The Ukrainians said Russian forces have pushed into the plant’s perimeter and were bombing it from above. The Kremlin has denied there is any ground assault.
An adviser to Ukraine’s defence ministry said Azovstal has become “priority number one” for the nation’s political and military leadership.
Yuriy Sak told the BBC that efforts were focused on defending the vast industrial complex and managing further evacuations. Humanitarian corridors to allow trapped civilians were expected to be put in place on Thursday.
Mr Sak said Azovstal had become the “heart” of the war.
Mariupol’s seemingly inevitable fall would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, allow Russia to establish a land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, and free up troops to fight elsewhere in the Donbas.
It would also allow Russia’s leadership a prize to commemorate Victory Day on 9 May, the date the country celebrates its defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War.
Mariupol, and the plant in particular, have come to symbolise the misery inflicted by the Russian invasion. The city has been pummelled during a two-month siege that has trapped civilians with little food, water, medicine or heat. Civilians holed up inside the plant have perhaps suffered even more. About 100 of them were evacuated from the plant over the weekend — the first time some saw daylight in months.
In an early morning address, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said a truce would be needed in Mariupol to lift remaining civilians out of underground shelters and basements.
“It will take time simply to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters. In the present conditions, we cannot use heavy equipment to clear the rubble away. It all has to be done by hand,” Mr Zelensky said.
The Russian government said it would open another evacuation corridor from the plant during certain hours on Thursday through to Saturday.
But there was no immediate confirmation of those arrangements from other parties, and many previous assurances from the Kremlin have fallen through, with the Ukrainians blaming continued fighting by the Russians.
It is unclear how many Ukrainian fighters are still inside the plant, but the Russians put the number at about 2,000 in recent weeks, and 500 were reported to be wounded. A few hundred civilians also remain there, the Ukrainian side said this week.