(Reuters) – The city council of Ukraine’s Mariupol said Russian forces forcefully deported several thousand people from the besieged city last week, after Russia had spoken of “refugees” arriving from the strategic port.
“Over the past week, several thousand Mariupol residents were deported onto the Russian territory,” the council said in a statement on its Telegram channel late on Saturday.
“The occupiers illegally took people from the Livoberezhniy district and from the shelter in the sports club building, where more than a thousand people (mostly women and children) were hiding from the constant bombing.”
Reuters could not independently verify the claims.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said busses carrying people it called refugees from Mariupol began to arrive to Russia on Tuesday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported last week. The ministry was not immediately available to comment on the Mariupol city council’s claims.
Some 400,000 people have been trapped in Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, for more than two weeks, sheltering from heavy bombardment that has severed central supplies of electricity, heating and water, according to local authorities.
The Russian TASS news agency reported on Saturday that 13 busses were moving to Russia, carrying more than 350 people, about 50 of whom were to be sent by rail to the Yaroslavl region and the rest to temporary transition centres in Taganrog, a port city in Russia’s Rostov region.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said this month that Russia had prepared 200 busses to “evacuate” Mariupol citizens.
RIA Novosti agency, citing emergency services, reported last week that nearly 300,000 people, including some 60,000 children, have arrived in Russia from the Luhansk and Donbas regions, including from Mariupol, in recent weeks.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said this month that more than 2.6 million people in Ukraine have asked to be evacuated.
Reuters could not immediately verify those reports.
Mariupol, a key connection to the Black Sea, has been a target since the start of the war on Feb. 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say Putin launched an unprovoked war of aggression.
As Russia has sought to seize most of Ukraine’s southern coast, Mariupol has assumed great importance, lying between the Russian-annexed peninsula of Crimea to the west and the Donetsk region to the east, which is partially controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard)