Dnipro, Ukraine — Hundreds of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers who were trapped for weeks in tunnels under a sprawling, heavily bombed steel plant in the southThe port city of Mariupol could be facing its last stand. Ukrainian troops holed up in the factory are the latest holdouts in a city now controlled by Russia.
British intelligence suggests there is a new urgency in Moscow for President Vladimir Putin’s invading forces to seize the facility, for propaganda purposes.
A senior Red Cross official confirmed to CBS News Senior Foreign Correspondent Charlie D’Agata that anotherFriday. Between the relentless shelling of besieged steelworks, rescue teams managed to evacuate nearly 500 civilians over the past week in what the Red Cross official called a “very difficult and dangerous operation”.
The shootings continued and a commander of the Russian-backed separatist forces in the area claimed that Ukrainian troops at the plant had run out of ammunition.
He said his fighters will “try to take it all in” by May 9. It is “Victory Day”, when Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany. Conquering Mariupol permanently before then would give President Putin a badly needed war trophy.
But as D’Agata reports, it would come at a horrific human cost.
Survivors have described escaping “a living hell” under the steelworks, and many bear deep psychological scars from the ordeal, International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Chris Hanger told CBS News.
He said that when ICRC teams met some of the civilians who had escaped, “they were obviously devastated that they had not seen the sky for more than two months, and the moment they came out they saw their city – their home – completely destroyed, so some people were asking for a priest, some people were just crying, and some people were silent.
Tetyana Trotsak, 25, cuddled her dog Daisy and marveled at the “blue skies and bright sunshine” as she stepped outside.
“I hope there’s never a bang here,” she said, “just fireworks and thunder.”
having survived theYana Melnychenko traveled to the southern city of Zaporizhzhia to meet his brother and mother, who fled Azov, just north of Mariupol.
D’Agata asked her brother Oleksiy about the conditions in the city.
“It was tough,” he said. “We had no water. No internet connection. We were hiding in the basement and the Russians looted the supermarkets.”
With the whole family reunited and exchanging hugs, they said it was “the best day”.
But the whole region – a vast swath of eastern Ukraine stretching north to south – is bracing for much darker days ahead.
Ukrainian intelligence officials said Russian occupation forces in Mariupol were busy clearing the city’s central streets of rubble, the bodies of slain residents and unexploded ordnance, with the intention of organizing there their own Victory Day Parade.