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Russia says civilians can leave the Mariupol steel plant, but Ukraine disagrees

Russian military vehicles move in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine on Saturday.
Alexei Alexandrov
Russian military vehicles move in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine on Saturday.

Russia's defense ministry says it will allow civilians to evacuate from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol on Monday, according to a statement shared on Telegram and translated by Western outlets. Ukraine says no humanitarian corridor agreement has yet been reached.

The steel plant is the last remaining Ukrainian outpost in the port city, which has been blockaded by Russian forces for much of the last two months. Roughly 2,000 troops have been fighting to defend the plant, in which civilians have been taking shelter underground. Ombudsman Lyudmila Denisova previously put that number at about 1,000, according to the Kyiv Independent.

Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops not to storm the steel mill, but rather seal it off so that "not even a fly comes through." Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that Russian forces had tried to storm the complex and were continuing to bombard it with airstrikes, including by long-range aircraft.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Monday that it will open a humanitarian corridor for civilians to evacuate from the plant starting at 2 p.m. local time.

Russian troops "from 14:00 Moscow time on April 25, 2022, will unilaterally stop any hostilities, withdraw units to a safe distance and ensure the withdrawal of" civilians, according to a translation from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The ministry said the ceasefire will specifically ensure the withdrawal of workers, women and children from the plant in any directions they choose, Forbes reports. It also accused Ukrainian forces of using the civilians trapped inside the plant as human shields — Ukrainian officials have refuted that claim and accuse Russian forces of deliberately targeting civilians.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshschuk said on Monday that the two countries had not reached an agreement with Russia on allowing humanitarian evacuations from Mariupol.

"It is important to understand that a humanitarian corridor opens by the agreement of both sides," she said on Telegram, according to Reuters. "A corridor announced unilaterally does not provide security, and therefore is not a humanitarian corridor."

Ukraine's Stratcom Centre, under the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy, tweeted that because no agreement was formally reached with Russia, any such corridor will not be safe. Russian forces have already fired on numerous corridors, it added.

Officials are asking the United Nations secretary-general to "initiate and guarantee" a humanitarian corridor for civilians from Azovstal.

More than 100,000 people are believed to be trapped in the city with little food, water or heat, as the Associated Press has reported. That's according to Ukrainian authorities, who estimate that more than 20,000 civilians have been killed there over the last two months.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.