U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meets Zelensky in Kyiv

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Some women and children have been evacuated from a steel plant that is the last defensive stronghold in the bombed-out ruins of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, while U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Ukraine’s president in the country’s capital in a show of American support.

Russia’s offensive in coastal southern Ukraine and the country’s eastern industrial heartland has Ukrainian forces fighting village by village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling as the war reaches their doorsteps.

Thousands of residents were believed to remain trapped with little food, water or medicine in blockaded Mariupol. The United Nations was working to broker an evacuation of as many as 1,000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath a sprawling Soviet-era steel plant that is the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.

Footage released early Sunday by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office showed Pelosi in Kyiv with a congressional delegation that included representatives Jason Crow, Jim McGovern, Gregory Meeks and Adam Schiff. The visit was not previously announced.

In video later released by Pelosi’s office, the speaker and Zelensky both thanked each other for their support in the war.

“We’ll win and we’ll win together,” Zelensky said.

Pelosi added: “We are here until victory is won.”

‘Your fight is a fight for everyone’

“We believe that we are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom,” said Pelosi, who is second in line to the U.S. presidency after the vice-president and the highest-ranking American leader to visit Ukraine since the start of the war.

“We are on a frontier of freedom and your fight is a fight for everyone. Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” Pelosi added.

“Our delegation travelled to Kyiv to send an unmistakable and resounding message to the entire world: America stands firmly with Ukraine,” she said in a statement released Sunday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, awards the Order of Princess Olga, the third grade, to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. Pelosi, second in line to the presidency after the vice-president, is the highest-ranking American leader to visit Ukraine since the start of the war. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

The delegation continued its trip in southeast Poland, and Pelosi said they would later visit the capital, Warsaw, to meet with President Andrzej Duda and other senior officials. Poland has received more than three million refugees from Ukraine since Russia launched its war on Feb. 24.

“We look forward to thanking our Polish allies for their dedication and humanitarian efforts,” she said.

Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine following their failure to capture the capital. Mariupol is a major target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Two groups of civilians left the residential area around the Azovstal steel works in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Saturday, the Russian defence ministry said on Sunday.

Civilians who left an area near the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol walk accompanied by a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross to a temporary accommodation centre in the village of Bezimenne, Ukraine, on Sunday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The ministry said a total of 46 civilians had left the area and were provided with food and shelter. Hundreds of Ukrainian fighters and some civilians are believed to be holed up in the vast plant following the Russian siege of the port city. Many efforts to arrange a ceasefire to allow residents to leave the city have broken down, with Moscow and Kyiv repeatedly blaming each other.

Meanwhile, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency said Saturday that 19 adults and six children were brought out from the Azovstal steelworks, but gave no further details.

‘These are women and children’

A top official with the Azov Regiment, the Ukrainian unit defending the plant, said 20 civilians were evacuated during a ceasefire, though it was not clear if he was referring to the same group. There was no confirmation from the UN.

“These are women and children,” Sviatoslav Palamar said in a video posted on the regiment’s Telegram channel. He also called for the evacuation of the wounded: “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed.”

Ukraine has blamed the failure of numerous previous evacuation attempts on continued Russian shelling.

UN humanitarian spokesperson Saviano Abreu said the world organization was negotiating with authorities in Moscow and Kyiv on evacuations from Mariupol, but he could not provide details of the ongoing effort “because of the complexity and fluidity of the operation.”

People sit in a bus during evacuation from Lyman in the Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine on Saturday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

Abreu would not confirm video posted on social media purportedly showing UN-marked vehicles in Mariupol.

In the town of Lyman in the Donetsk region, where at least half the population has fled Russian shelling, around 20 elderly people and children clutching bags along with their dogs and cats boarded a minivan marked with a sign reading “evacuation of children” in Ukrainian. It sped off toward the city of Dnipro as explosions were heard in the distance.

‘Freed us from what? Our lives?’

“The liberators have come and have freed us from what? Our lives?” said Nina Mihaylenko, a professor of Russian language and literature, referring to the Russian forces.

As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in the port city, included up to civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the sprawling Soviet-era steel plant that is the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.

Details about the scope of Saturday’s evacuations and the possibility of more to come Sunday were unclear given the number of parties involved in the negotiations and the volatile situation on the ground.

A woman cries as relatives and activists take part in a rally demanding international leaders to organize a humanitarian corridor for evacuation of Ukrainian military and civilians from Mariupol, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Zelensky delivers address partly in Russian

In his nightly video address late Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky switched into Russian to urge Russian troops not to fight in Ukraine, saying even their generals expect that thousands more of them will die.

The president  warned that Russia was “gathering additional forces for new attacks against our military in the east of the country.” and accused Moscow of recruiting new soldiers “with little motivation and little combat experience” so that units gutted early in the war can be thrown back into battle.

“But why do the Russian soldiers need this? Why do their families need this?” Zelensky said in Russian.

“Every Russian soldier can still save his own life,” Zelensky said. “It’s better for you to survive in Russia than to perish on our land.”

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