No residents could be evacuated from the encircled city of Mariupol on Thursday due to continuing Russian shelling of agreed-to humanitarian corridors, Ukrainian deputy PM Iryna Vereshchuk said in a Telegram post on Thursday evening.
“No happy news out of Mariupol. Everything has been hard-going,” she wrote. “On the Russian side, everything has been very difficult, chaotic, slow, and of course, dishonest.”
“We apologise to the residents of Mariupol who did not get to be evacuated today. Shelling began at the evacuation point, which is why the humanitarian corridor had to be closed.”
In the same post, Vereshchuk acknowledged that on Wednesday, a four-bus convoy was allowed to transport 79 civilians from Mariupol to Kyiv-controlled territory in Ukraine’s southeastern Zaporizhzhia region - a development she said “gave her hope.”
AFP journalists witnessed evacuees arrive in Zaporizhzhia aboard three school buses on Thursday after crossing through territory held by Russian forces having left Mariupol earlier.
Women and children could be seen on the buses as they arrived after attempts to open a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol that has been delayed multiple times because of fierce fighting in southern Ukraine.
Exhausted evacuee Valentina, 73, told AFP she urgently needed medication for her back as she clutched onto an electricity pole with dirt-covered hands to stop herself falling over.
"My apartment has been destroyed just like the house of my son," she said, still wearing her slippers along with a torn black coat.
"From day one we were in a basement. It was cold. We were praying to God. I was asking him to protect us."
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister who was present to receive the buses, said the number of evacuees was far smaller than had been hoped for as the humanitarian corridor had not functioned properly.
"Nothing has worked. Only 79 people could come. There were no green corridors," she said, adding that many of the evacuees had been "robbed by the Russians".
Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko detailed the difficulties of evacuations in a press conference later on Thursday, saying that meeting points for civilians wishing to leave were shelled and buses were slow to arrive.
He also accused the Russian army of arresting any civilians linked to Ukrainian authorities.
"If you are linked to public service, you go directly to prison," he said.
Strategic port Mariupol has been a key target for Russia in its attack on Ukraine and devastating bombardments have left swathes of the city in ruins.
Ukrainian forces are holed up along with civilians in a final stronghold in the vast Azovstal iron and steel works.
Vereshchuk said there were almost 1,000 people in the plant waiting for a humanitarian corridor and 500 injured soldiers.
"If shelling starts, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has to know that he's bombarding women and children," she said.
"We are ready to organise more convoys but the Russians must allow it."
Putin on Thursday ordered his defence minister to call off the planned storming of Azovstal and to impose a blockage around the plant.
Ukraine's foreign ministry called for a humanitarian route from the factory to be opened immediately to allow civilians and injured soldiers to leave.