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Civilians who left the area near Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol at a temporary accommodation centre during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the village of Bezimenne in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine May 1, 2022.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

Around 100 Ukrainian civilians were evacuated from the ruined Azovstal steelworks in the city of Mariupol on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, after the United Nations confirmed a “safe passage operation” was in progress there.

Meanwhile, Valery Gerasimov, who serves as chief of staff of the Russian army, was reportedly wounded in Ukraine’s Karhviv region, multiple British media outlets reported Sunday. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top military commander had been brought to the front lines of Ukraine last week to help organize Russian forces, the reports said. He was sent back to Russia for medical treatment.

The reports also said Russian Major-General Andrei Simonov, 55, was believed killed in Kharkiv, the ninth general to have been killed since the invasion began.

The strategic port city on the Azov Sea has endured the most destructive siege of the war with Russia – now in its third month – with Pope Francis, in an implicit criticism of Moscow, telling thousands of people in St Peter’s Square on Sunday it had been “barbarously bombarded.”

“For the first time, we had two days of a ceasefire on this territory, and we managed to take out more than 100 civilians – women, children,” Mr. Zelensky said in a nightly video address.

The first evacuees would arrive in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Monday morning, he said, adding that he hoped conditions would continue that allowed for more people to be evacuated.

With fighting stretching along a broad front in southern and eastern Ukraine, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged continued U.S. support for Ukraine “until victory is won” after she met Mr. Zelensky in an unannounced visit to Kyiv.

Russia’s military has turned its focus to Ukraine’s south and east after failing to capture Kyiv in the early weeks of a war that has flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than five million to flee the country.

In Mariupol, Moscow declared victory on April 21 even as hundreds of holdout Ukrainian troops and civilians took shelter in the Azovstal steelworks, a vast Soviet-era complex with a network of bunkers and tunnels, where they have been trapped with little food, water or medicine.

Negotiations to evacuate the civilians had repeatedly broken down in recent weeks, with Russia and Ukraine blaming each other.

But on Sunday, more than 50 civilians arrived at a temporary accommodation centre after escaping from Mariupol, a Reuters photographer said.

The civilians arrived on buses in a convoy with UN and Russian military vehicles at the Russian-held village of Bezimenne, around 30 kilometres (18 miles) east of Mariupol, where a row of light blue tents had been set up.

One of the evacuees, Natalia Usmanova, 37, said she had been so terrified as Russian bombs rained down on the plant sprinkling her with concrete dust that she felt her heart would stop.

“When the bunker started to shake, I was hysterical. My husband can vouch for that. I was so worried the bunker would cave in,” she told Reuters in Bezimenne.

A spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said a “safe passage operation” had started on Saturday and was being co-ordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russia and Ukraine.

He said no further details could be released so as not to jeopardize the safety of evacuees and the convoy.

A handout photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Service on May 1, 2022, shows President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky presenting the Order of Princess Olga to U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi for "her significant personal contribution to strengthening Ukrainian-American interstate cooperation and supporting sovereign, independent and democratic Ukraine" during their meeting in Kyiv.STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Footage posted by Mr. Zelensky on Twitter on Sunday showed him, flanked by an armed escort and dressed in military fatigues, greeting a U.S. congressional delegation led by Ms. Pelosi outside his presidential office the previous day.

“We stand with Ukraine until victory is won. And we stand with our NATO allies in supporting Ukraine,” Ms. Pelosi, the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, said on Sunday at a press briefing in Poland.

Mr. Zelensky praised as substantive four hours of talks with Ms. Pelosi focused on U.S. weapons deliveries, adding he was grateful to all of Ukraine’s partners who visit Kyiv at such a difficult time.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in New York he would add provisions to a US$33-billion Ukraine aid package to allow the United States to seize Russian oligarchs’ assets and send money from their sale directly to Kyiv.

U.S. President Joe Biden asked Congress to approve the aid package on Thursday in what would mark a dramatic escalation of U.S. funding for Ukraine.

Mr. Biden spoke with Ms. Pelosi on Sunday about her trip, a White House official said without elaborating.

Moscow calls its actions a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war of aggression.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was not demanding that Mr. Zelensky “give himself up” as a condition for peace.

“We are demanding that he issue an order to release civilians and stop resistance. Our aim does not include regime change in Ukraine,” Mr. Lavrov said in a media interview published on his ministry’s website.

In the east, Moscow is pushing for complete control of the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists already controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces before the invasion.

On Sunday, Kharkiv region governor Oleh Synehubov warned residents in the north and east of the city of Kharkiv to remain in their shelters owing to heavy Russian shelling. Reuters could not immediately verify reports of shelling in the area.

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, in a social-media post, urged people to evacuate while it was still possible.

Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were fighting to push north from Kherson to the cities of Mykolayiv and Kryvyi Rih, and Mr. Zelensky said Russian troops continued to launch strikes on residential areas and had destroyed grain storage depots.

“This will only build up the toxic attitude to the Russian state and increase the numbers of those working to isolate Russia,” Mr. Zelensky said.

With a report from The Associated Press

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