RUSSIA launched a bid to storm the wrecked Azovstal steel plant yesterday as 400 civilians remained trapped in “hell” in bunkers and tunnels below the bomb-blitzed site.
The devastated Mariupol factory faced airstrikes and bombardment by tanks and naval guns as attempts were made to land infantry by boat after a ceasefire to evacuate the trapped collapsed.
Most of 50 rescue buses departed empty leaving those remaining in the only corner of the besieged port city free of Russian occupation wondering if they would ever make it out alive.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that only 101 civilians managed to escape before the shelling resumed.
Most arrived yesterday at a refugee centre in Zaporizhzhia.
Many had taken refuge in the plant when the war began in February.
None appeared hungry, leading to hopes that enough food remains for the civilians and 2,000 troops — including the Azov Battalion and marines who have vowed to fight to the end.
Sviatoslav Palamar, a commander at the site — dubbed The Alamo for the soldiers’ last stand — said: “A powerful assault is under way with support from armoured vehicles and tanks.”
He said Russia was trying “to land a large number of infantry by boat”.
He said: “We will do everything we can to repel this assault, but we call for immediate measures to evacuate civilians.”
The UN-backed evacuation from the plant, where fighting began soon after the February 24 invasion, was due to last 24 hours but continued for five days before the ceasefire broke down.
Of those to get out, 11 chose to stay in Russian-held territory.
The rest, including 12 sick and injured, headed for Zaporizhzhia.
They were joined by 58 others in Mariupol’s outskirts.
The group was screened by Russian soldiers at dozens of checkpoints and a four-hour journey in peacetime took 48.
Some chose not to go all the way to the refugee centre, where 127 arrived.
Red Cross chief Pascal Hundt confirmed last night that “hostilities have resumed”.
He added: “There is intense fighting in and around Azovstal. We really have concern.”
He said of the evacuation: “We would have hoped that much more people would be able to join the convoy to get out of hell. It was just a terrible situation.
“Nonetheless, we managed to facilitate safe passage for a few. Their testimonies are heart-breaking.”
Mr Hundt said the worst wounds suffered by the refugee group were psychological.
He said: “Food and water was maybe not the biggest need for them. I think the biggest need they have was for safety.
“Spending so many days and nights in a bunker without being able to go out, fearing that your life may end within a seconds, I can just imagine how people can be traumatised.
“There were young kids there, there were women, there were old people.”
UN coordinator Osnat Lubrani said: “Over the past days, travelling with the evacuees, I’ve heard mothers, children and frail grandparents speak about the trauma of living day after day under unrelenting heavy shelling.
“There is the fear of death and an extreme lack of water, food and sanitation. They have spoken of the hell they have experienced since this war started, seeking refuge at the Azovstal plant.”
Yelena Tsybulchenko, who was on the convoy, said: “You can’t imagine how scary it is when you sit in the shelter, in a wet and damp basement which is bouncing, shaking.
“We were praying to God that missiles fly over our shelter, because if it hit the shelter, all of us would be done.”