KYIV, Ukraine — At least 20 civilians including several children were able to leave a badly battered steel plant in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Saturday in what could be the start of a long-awaited, larger evacuation of the last holdout in the Russian-held city.
Earlier efforts at evacuations from the Azovstal steel plant -- where local fighters say they and hundreds of civilians are still sheltering in brutal conditions -- had been futile.
Ukrainian fighters of the Azov regiment, which has been defending the site, said 20 civilians had left, possibly for the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, about 225 kilometres (140 miles) to the northwest.
Russia's Tass news agency carried a similar report, though putting the number of evacuees at 25.
A United Nations-planned evacuation had been planned, though it was unclear whether Saturday's evacuation was UN-led and whether further evacuations were imminent. There were no immediate details on the condition of the evacuees.
Ukraine's President Zelensky said in a video Saturday evening said Kyiv was "doing everything to ensure that the evacuation mission from Mariupol is carried out".
Fresh satellite imagery by private US firm Maxar taken on Friday showed a devastated Mariupol, with almost all of Azovstal destroyed.
The apparent ceasefire in Mariupol took place as Russian attacks continued unabated across Ukraine, most heavily in the fiercely disputed eastern regions, but with attacks as far west as Odessa, on the Black Sea coast.
Odessa's regional governor Maxim Marchenko said a Russian missile strike had destroyed the airport runway, as Moscow continues targeting infrastructure and supply lines deep in the west of the country.
There were no victims from the airport strike near the historic city of one million people.
Near Bucha, the town near Kyiv that has become synonymous with allegations of Russian war crimes, Ukrainian police on Saturday reported finding three bodies shot in the head with their hands tied.
The three bodies found in a pit were "brutally killed" by Russian soldiers -- each shot in the head, the police said in a statement.
"The victims' hands were tied, cloths were covering their eyes and some were gagged. There are traces of torture on the corpses," it said.
In Mariupol, the Azov regiment said Saturday that it had been clearing the debris of overnight shelling by Russia to rescue trapped civilians.
From the city's badly damaged port zone, AFP on Friday heard heavy shelling coming from Azovstal during a media trip organised by the Russian army, with explosions only seconds apart.
"Twenty civilians, women and children... have been transferred to a suitable place and we hope that they will be evacuated to Zaporizhzhia, on territory controlled by Ukraine," said Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment.
But Denis Pushilin, leader of the breakaway eastern region of Donetsk, accused Ukrainian forces of "acting like outright terrorists" and holding civilians hostage in the steel plant.
On the front line in the east, Russian troops have advanced slowly but steadily in some areas -- helped by massive use of artillery -- but Ukrainian forces have also recaptured some territory in recent days, particularly around the city of Kharkiv.
One of the areas taken back from Russian control was the village of Ruska Lozova, which evacuees said had been occupied for two months.
"It was two months of terrible fear. Nothing else, a terrible and relentless fear," Natalia, a 28-year-old evacuee from Ruska Lozova, told AFP after reaching Kharkiv.
"We were in the basements without food for two months, we were eating what we had," said Svyatoslav, 40, who did not want to give his full name, his eyes red with fatigue.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 13 million have been forced to flee their homes since the Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour began on February 24, according to the United Nations.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Friday briefly choked with emotion as he described the destruction in Ukraine and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of "depravity".
Ukrainian prosecutors say they have pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes carried out by Moscow's troops and are investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in Bucha.
Russia has denied any involvement in civilian deaths in Bucha.
Moscow officials confirmed on Friday that their forces carried out an air strike on Kyiv a day earlier during a visit by UN chief Antonio Guterres, the first such attack on the capital city in nearly two weeks. A journalist died in the attack.
'Russia will not go unpunished'
Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk meanwhile reported that 14 Ukrainians including a pregnant soldier had been freed in the latest prisoner exchange with Russian forces.
She did not say how many Russians had been returned.
Kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a string of villages in the Donbas region.
"Even if there has been some advance by Russian troops on the ground, it is not very fast," Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin told AFP.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the "special military operation... is proceeding strictly according to plan", China's official Xinhua news agency reported.
Russia has warned Western countries against sending more military aid.
"If the US and NATO are really interested in resolving the Ukraine crisis, then first of all, they should wake up and stop supplying the Kyiv regime with arms and ammunition," Lavrov said.
But more Western armaments are due to arrive in Ukraine, with US President Joe Biden on Thursday seeking billions of dollars from Congress to boost supplies.
And a top Ukrainian military official Saturday said he had held talks with chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Mark Milley on the "difficult situation in the east of our country, particularly in the Izium and Sieverodonetsk areas, where the enemy has concentrated its maximum efforts and the most combat-ready groups."
"Despite the complexity of the situation, we provide defense, keep occupied boundaries and positions," general Valery Zaluzhny said on Facebook.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday that his country would also "intensify" military and humanitarian support.
And Ukraine's President Zelensky said he spoke with Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson "on defense support for Ukraine and other efforts necessary to end the war".
"I informed Boris about the current situation on the battlefield in the areas of active clashes and in detail about the situation in our east, in Mariupol, in the south of the country," he said.
"All the leaders of the free world know what Russia has done to Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this."
Zelensky was also reported Saturday to have met with a spokesman for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is trying to pave the way for an Istanbul summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelensky.
And with Sweden pondering a bid for NATO membership, defence officials there said Saturday that a Russian reconnaissance plane had briefly violated the northern country's airspace a day earlier.