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Evacuations begin from Mariupol plant as shelling in east continues

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Some civilians were finally evacuated from a vast Mariupol steel plant after a cease-fire on Saturday allowed a small group to leave the besieged complex, though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discounted much progress on broader negotiations.

Officials believe up to 1,000 people have sought refuge at the large Azovstal complex, which has been pummeled for days amid Russian strikes. New satellite images show many buildings in the complex flattened and roofs destroyed.

On Saturday, a group of 20 to 25 women and children had been evacuated, according to the deputy commander of a Ukrainian regiment and Russia’s official Tass news agency. But it’s unclear whether hundreds more civilians and soldiers will be able to get out as talks between Russia and Ukraine appeared even more fraught.

Vladimir Yermakov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s head of nuclear nonproliferation, told Tass that a “return to dialogue with the United States on strategic stability will only be possible after finishing the work of the Russian special operation in Ukraine,” using Moscow’s term for its invasion of Ukraine. He described the dialogue as “frozen.”

He also accused the U.S. of using the “Kyiv regime as a one-off disposable tool for its own ends against Russia.”

American officials, however, don’t see much of a change in the status quo. They have said that they find it difficult to see a clear road ahead to resume diplomatic talks with Russia over a range of issues, especially after the invasion began.

On Friday, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby told reporters that the United States was comfortable with the strategic nuclear deterrent posture in place. But the administration was closely monitoring Russia’s messaging and actions given the seriousness of the issue.

“We urge Russia to stop escalating the rhetoric with respect to nuclear weapons and do the right thing. End the war today. Have your troops leave Ukraine, sit down in good faith with President Zelensky and do the right thing,” Kirby said.

On the front lines, Russian forces made little progress in advancing in eastern Ukraine, where they have reinforced their troops. Ukraine’s military claimed it regained control of four villages in the Kharkiv region on Saturday, asserting that Russian troops were “not succeeding” in plans to quickly take control of vast swaths of territory in the east.

Western military analysis has also said that Moscow is still struggling with morale and supply concerns despite a new focus on the eastern region of Donbas. The Pentagon described only “plodding progress” after fierce Ukrainian resistance.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Zelensky on Saturday to offer continued support. A statement from Johnson’s office said the prime minister is “more committed than ever to reinforcing Ukraine and ensuring Putin fails” and that Britain will “continue to provide additional military aid to give the Ukrainians the equipment they needed to defend themselves.”

Separately, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the country will send investigators to Ukraine to help collect evidence of war crimes, including rape and other sexual violence.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke with his counterpart, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, to provide an update on U.S. aid money and the return of diplomats, the State Department said on Saturday.

Russian forces are pressing an offensive in Donbas, which encompasses parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions and borders Russia. The governor of Luhansk said Saturday that shelling has damaged dozens of houses in recent days.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that troops have repelled more than a dozen attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk over the past 24 hours. It said earlier this week that Russian forces captured some urban settlements as they sought to expand their grip over the two provinces that make up the eastern Donbas region.

Local officials said earlier this week that damage to infrastructure has left many residents without electricity or water.

Workers in the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol cleared debris on April 25 as Russian forces continued to attack fighters at the Azovstal steel plant complex. (Video: Reuters)

As the human toll continues to escalate, Zelensky said Ukraine would conduct a census to assess the number of civilians who have died or gone missing since Russia’s invasion. More than 7,000 people have been reported to Ukrainian police as missing in nearly two months of war. Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry said Friday that half of the cases are still unsolved. It called on supporting nations to send forensic and other experts to help.

Fresh missile attacks continued across the country, and a strike in Odessa left the city’s airport unusable. The city’s official Telegram account said that the runway had been damaged, and that “its further use is impossible.”

Odessa is a strategically important Black Sea port for Ukraine, making it a key target for Russian forces. Moscow’s troops, however, haven’t been able to get close to the city, sparing it from the frequency of attacks visited on many other areas.

Ukraine’s Red Cross also said that its office in Dobropillia, in the eastern Donetsk region, was bombed on Saturday. In a Twitter post, the organization said that eight of its offices in Ukraine had been damaged or destroyed since the invasion two months ago.

Even as hopes rose that more civilians would be able to leave the Azovstal steel plant, the strikes left untold damage. Svyatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov Regiment, a nationalist group that is part of Ukraine’s National Guard, told CNN that “there are cellars and bunkers that we cannot reach because they are under rubble.”

“We do not know whether the people there are alive or not. There are children aged four months to 16 years. But there are people trapped in places that you can’t get to,” Palamar said.

The situation in the plant’s bunkers has become increasingly dire as food and water supplies dwindle. While Ukrainian officials demand that humanitarian corridors stay intact to bring people to safety, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday that he saw no need for evacuation routes.

Palamar said that although the cease-fire began several hours late, it was holding Saturday morning.

Earlier on Saturday, one of the Ukrainian fighters said that Ukrainian and Russian forces had stopped fighting “since the morning.”

“Right now we have a cease-fire regime — neither side is shooting,” Mykhailo Vershynin, chief of the Donetsk regional patrol police, told The Washington Post. “All these actions are directly connected to the possibility of being able to transport people out of here.”

The Biden administration, meanwhile, is exploring ways to bring certain Russian workers to the United States. The goal is to waive some visa restrictions for Russians in high-tech sectors, like those with expertise in cybersecurity, nuclear engineering and artificial intelligence. Over the long term, the intention would be to weaken Russia’s workforce and productivity.

That kind of blow would compound an already bleak economic picture in Russia. The country’s central bank projected the national economy would shrink by 8 to 10 percent this year, as the country suffers from international sanctions that have disrupted trade and frozen billions of dollars in reserves. In a statement Friday, the central bank said it cut its key interest rate to 14 percent and described lowering rates further in 2022 as a possibility.

Lavrov had claimed that the two sides were talking about lifting sanctions as part of negotiations in an interview with China’s state-run media outlet Xinhua.

“The issues of denationalization, recognition of new geopolitical realities, lifting of sanctions, the status of the Russian language and others are also on the agenda,” Lavrov said.

But Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser for Zelensky and a member of the negotiating team, called Lavrov’s comments “surprising.”

“The issue of global international sanctions against Russia is not discussed at all within the framework of the negotiation process,” Podoliak said, according to Interfax Ukraine news agency. “The reason for their introduction by the world community has not been eliminated yet; that is the occupation of part of the territory of Ukraine and the treacherous violation of our territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Economic uncertainty reverberated throughout the conflict, especially when it comes to the energy stability. Municipal officials in Kyiv on Friday urged residents to stop driving private vehicles to conserve Ukraine’s limited fuel supplies for troops fighting off the Russian invasion.

Zelensky acknowledged Ukraine’s fuel shortage in an address Friday night and said his government would create a “system of fuel supply” within two weeks to alleviate the problem, “no matter how difficult it may be.”

“Queues and rising prices at gas stations are seen in many regions of our country,” he said.

Actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie was spotted in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Saturday, attracting news attention. Lviv’s regional governor, Maksym Kozytskyi, wrote on Telegram that Jolie spent time visiting children and with volunteers at a medical facility. Photos posted by Kozytskyi show Jolie spending time with children at a boarding school and volunteers at the medical institution. One video shows her playing with a young girl.

“For all of us, this visit was a surprise,” Kozytskyi wrote. “Many people who saw Ms. Jolie in the Lviv region could not believe that it was really her.”

Lviv, which has sustained only sporadic Russian attacks, has become a haven for civilians, diplomats, journalists and aid groups because of its relative safety and proximity to the Polish border. Jolie is U.N. special envoy for refugees, but a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told The Washington Post in an email that Jolie was traveling to the area “in her personal capacity.”

Karen DeYoung, Timothy Bella, Nick Parker, Lateshia Beachum, Marisa Iati and Ellen Francis contributed to this report.

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