Further 50 civilians escape 'hell' of Mariupol steel works as Russian attacks continue

ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry has the latest on the relentless assaults on the steel works in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol.

Fifty more civilians, including 11 children, were rescued Friday from the tunnels under a besieged steel plant in Mariupol.

The figures have been confirmed by the Russian military and Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

They will join the 100 other civilians handed over to representatives of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday.

Wounded Ukrainian defenders battling Russian troops in the tunnels underneath Mariupol's steel plant continue to refuse to surrender despite the "hell" of constant bombardment, say officials.

Russian forces continued relentless attacks on the Azovstal steelworks - the last Ukrainian stronghold of the strategic southern port city - amid growing speculation that President Vladimir Putin wants to present Russians with a battlefield triumph - or announce an escalation of war - in time for Victory Day on Monday.

An estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters - by Russia's most recent estimate - are holed up in the plant's vast underground network of tunnels and bomb shelters, as Moscow's forces blockade defence units. A few hundred civilians, including children, are also reportedly still trapped there.

Escaped civilians describe their two months living 'in the centre of hell'

More than 150 civilians have finally escaped from the bombarded Azovstal steel plant after evacuation missions from the site.

The steel plant has represented the last bastion of Ukrainian defence in the ruined city of Mariupol for a number of weeks now.

Civilians who have managed to escape offered journalists a clear view of what it was like to live in, what they called, "hell" for the past two week.

Serhii Tsybulchenko, who fled the steel plant in Mariupol, arrives with his family to a centre for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia. Credit: AP

“We’re so sorry,” one evacuating family told civilians staying behind as they started toward the surface. “Don’t worry,” the others replied. “We’ll follow.”

“There are many wounded (fighters), but they are not surrendering,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address.

“They are holding their positions.”

“Just imagine this hell! And there are children there,” he said. “More than two months of constant shelling, bombing, constant death.”

A woman walks past tanks in Mariupol. Credit: AP

ITV News has been told the situation at the Azovstal plant "gets more critical" as the Russian military abandoned assurances of a ceasefire meant to allow hundreds of civilians to evacuate the steel works.

The rest of the city is under Russian control.

Other key developments:

  • Russia ramping up attacks on Mariupol and besieged steel plant in bid to seize entire city ahead of Victory Day on May 9, say British military officials

  • Clean-up operation begins in Mariupol, with warship and memorials restored and Russian flags erected in preparation of Russia's Victory Day

  • "Catastrophic" lack of access to medical services in Russian occupied areas with no treatment available for cancer sufferers, nor insulin for diabetics, says Zelenskyy

  • US says it shared intelligence with Ukraine about location of Moskva Black Sea flagship

  • Putin apologises to Israel over foreign minister's Hitler comments

Russian forces continued their ground assault on the steel plant for a second day, despite claims from Moscow that it would only seal it off, said the British Ministry of Defence (MoD).

"The renewed effort by Russia to secure Azovstal and complete the capture of Mariupol is likely linked to the upcoming 9 May Victory Day commemorations and Putin’s desire to have a symbolic success in Ukraine," said the MoD in an update on Friday.

May 9, known as Victory Day in Russia, is a symbolic national holiday that marks the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War in 1945.

An expert for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told ITV News there is plenty of evidence to suggest Putin could use the celebrations as a platform to declare a "limited victory" for Russia.

Emily Ferris, a RUSI research fellow specialising in Russia, said it is possible Putin could declare such a victory in Mariupol by claiming it has been "liberated", or by recognising some southern areas of Ukraine under Russian control as "mini independent statelets" that are de facto controlled by Moscow - as he did with the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk shortly before the invasion."It's obviously something they've planned already," said Ms Ferris.

As Ukrainian fighters held out in the steelworks, a clean-up operation began in the centre of the battered Russian-controlled city that has seen some of the worst fighting and devastation since Moscow invaded on February 24.

Civilians and council workers in Mariupol, the majority of which is under Moscow's control, were tasked with restoring memorials, a warship and erecting a Russian flag ahead of Russia's Victory Day on Monday

Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000, now has around 100,000 civilians trapped in the city with little food, water, medicine or heat.

Council workers and civilians were seen restoring a warship and memorials for "the victims of fascism", erecting a Russian flag, and clearing gutted, charred buildings where hundreds died when the Russian military bombed it in March.

One volunteer, who gave only his first name, Denis, said he was helping restore parks and war monuments "so Mariupol citizens can mark" Russia's Victory Day on Monday.

Fearful of new attacks surrounding Victory Day, the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk urged residents to leave for the countryside over the long weekend and warned them not to gather in public places.

And the south-eastern city of Zaporizhzhia, a key transit point for evacuees from Mariupol, announced a curfew from Sunday evening until Tuesday morning.

As Russian bombardment hit dozens of Ukrainian targets in the east and south, President Zelenskyy said nearly 400 health care facilities have been damaged or destroyed since the war began.

“There is simply a catastrophic situation regarding access to medical services and medicines,” in areas occupied by Russian forces, he said. "Even the simplest drugs are lacking.”

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He said almost no treatment was available for those suffering from cancer and insulin for diabetics was difficult to find or nonexistent. He said antibiotics were in short supply.

President Zelenskyy also said that during the course of the war, the Russian military has already fired 2,014 missiles on Ukraine, while 2,682 flights of Russian warplanes have been recorded in Ukrainian skies.

On Thursday, an American official said the US shared intelligence with Ukraine about the location of a Russian flagship before the mid-April strike that sank it - one of Moscow's highest-profile failures in the war.

The gutted remains of the world's biggest cargo aircraft and Russian military vehicles at the Antonov airport in Hostomel. Credit: AP

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the US has provided “a range of intelligence” that includes locations of warships - but the decision to target the missile cruiser Moskva was purely a Ukrainian decision.

Elsewhere, Isreali Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he accepted an apology from Putin over his foreign minister's controversial remarks about the Holocaust, Nazism and anti-semitism.

Israel said the remarks were "unforgiveable" and blamed Jews for their own murder in the Holocaust, after Sergey Lavrov claimed Ukraine could still have Nazi elements even though its president, Zelenskyy, is Jewish and had relatives killed in the Holocaust.

He claimed Hitler "also had Jewish origins, so it doesn’t mean absolutely anything", adding during an interview: "For some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the biggest antisemites were Jewish."

Prime Minister Bennett's office said in a statement that he had "accepted President Putin’s apology for Lavrov’s remarks and thanked him for clarifying the President’s attitude towards the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust.”

However, Russia made no mention of an apology in a statement. Instead, it said they emphasised the importance of marking the Nazi defeat in World War II ahead of Victory Day.