KYIV: Civilians including women and children remain trapped inside Ukraine’s besieged city of Mariupol and a prolonged cease-fire is needed to ensure their evacuation as Russia presses its assault, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday.

After failing to capture the capital Kyiv in the early weeks of a war that has killed thousands and flattened cities, Russia has accelerated attacks on Ukraine’s east and south.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern region of Donetsk, said at least 25 civilians were wounded as Russian forces shelled Kramatorsk, and town some 180 kilometers (112 miles) west of Luhansk.

Moscow declared victory over Mariupol on April 21 after weeks of siege and shelling, but fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces holed up in the Azovstal steelworks has prevented Russia completely overrunning the city.

Mariupol is a major Russian target as the city is key to Moscow’s efforts to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea — vital for grain and metals exports — and link Russian-controlled territory.

The United Nations and Red Cross evacuated hundreds of people from Mariupol and other areas this week. But some 200 civilians, as well as Ukrainian fighters, are still holed up in a network of underground bunkers in the Azovstal plant, Ukrainian officials say.

Russia vowed to pause military activity at Azovstal during Thursday daytime and the following two days to allow civilians to get out. In an early morning address, Zelensky said Ukraine stood ready to ensure a cease-fire in Mariupol.

“It will take time simply to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters. In the present conditions, we can not use heavy equipment to clear the rubble away. It all has to be done by hand,” Zelensky said.

Ukrainian fighters inside Azovstal are fighting “difficult, bloody battles” against Russian troops, Denis Prokopenko, a commander with Ukraine’s Azov regiment, said late on Wednesday. A Ukrainian parliamentarian said Russian forces were inside the plant.

Over 300 civilians were evacuated on Wednesday from Mariupol and other areas in southern Ukraine as part of a joint UN-Red Cross operation, UN humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine Osnat Lubrani said.

It was not clear if further UN evacuations were planned. Tetyana Trotsak, a Ukrainian evacuee who was among dozens who reached a Ukraine-controlled town this week, voiced fear for those still trapped inside the steel plant.
“God forbid more shells hit near the bunkers where the civilians are,” Trotsak said.