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“Moles in the dark”: survival and escape from the Mariupol steelworks

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© Reuters. Nataliya and Volodymyr Babeush, who were evacuated from Azovstal plant in Mariupol show children’s drawings during an interview with Reuters, amid Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

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By Alessandra Prentice

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Five storeys below the besieged Azovstal steelworks, Ukrainian soldiers told Nataliya Babeush she had a few minutes to prepare to escape the underground bunker she called home for more than two months.

The 35-year-old grabbed little more than a handful of children’s drawings: some sketches of flowers and food that had helped to cheer dozens of civilians who had sheltered for weeks in one corner of the vast, dimly lit concrete warren.

“I’ll keep them as long as I can,” she told Reuters, speaking after a humanitarian convoy brought her on Sunday to the city of Zaporizhzhia in southeast Ukraine.

Babeush and hundreds of others had sought refuge in the enormous complex beneath the Azovstal plant soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of Feb. 24 and laid siege to the port city of Mariupol.

She saw the plant as a short-term shelter before a retreat to safety elsewhere. Instead, the refuge became a trap as Azovstal became the focus of the fiercest fighting in the war.

Reuters spoke to four evacuees from the plant who spent weeks underground in dark, dank conditions enduring bombardment in one of the steelworks’ numerous bunkers. They described how the group of strangers was bonded by a need to survive, to ration food and keep their spirits up, as Russian forces drew closer.

“Every second was hellish. It’s very scary underground – to be underground like moles in the dark,” said 51-year-old nurse Valentyna Demyanchuk.

Russia has strongly denied targeting civilians in the conflict, which it calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine. Authorities in Kyiv say thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and has accused Moscow of war crimes.

Russia’s defence ministry and Ukraine’s government did not respond to a request for comment on the women’s testimony.

All four women described being woken up before dawn on the first day of the war by the bombardment of Mariupol.

Accountant Larisa Solop, 49, fled her apartment in the east of the city when fighting drew near. She hoped to meet her daughter’s family on the other side of town but there was no cellphone reception.

“Lots of buildings were burning … and shells whistled overhead,” she said. As an evening curfew neared, she realised her only hope was to shelter in nearby Azovstal – “just a stop-over.”

Two months later, she would be one of the last civilians to be evacuated on May 6 from the plant by the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 

SURVIVAL

Most of the roughly 40 people sharing Solop’s shelter arrived in early March. Many had just the clothes on their backs, others brought a few belongings and a bag or two of canned goods, pasta, porridge or potatoes, the women said.

Babeush, a former plant worker, became the main cook, stirring pots of soup on a wood-burning stove in the concrete storey above their bunker.

“The kids called her Auntie Soup,” said Demyanchuk, laughing ruefully. The group ate one meal a day, she said.

A strike knocked out all power supplies in early March, after which the group was plunged into darkness. They started rationing candles, while some of the men fashioned little torches from banks of industrial lighting that could run on individual batteries.

As the bombing intensified, some people attempted to leave but didn’t reach the perimeter of the complex before returning to the shelter, the women said.

“Planes from the sea were bombing so much that we couldn’t even get outside,” said Solop, recalling her elderly father being knocked off his feet in the bunker by the force of a blast.

As a distraction, Babeush encouraged the eight children in the group to decorate workers’ helmets. She made a robot costume out of a box with holes cut out of for eyes and organised a drawing competition at Orthodox Easter. Everyone voted and the first prize was a tin of meat paste.

Her favourite drawing was of a pizza with lovingly detailed strings of melted cheese.

But privately, Babeush had given up hope. She wrote her parents’ phone numbers inside her jacket in case she died in the bunker. “I didn’t think we’d get out.”

    ESCAPE

    Demyanchuk, her husband, son and elderly mother were among the first to make a break for it. Weary of the shelling, they decided to try their luck on foot on March 26 even though her mother needed two walking sticks and had to be carried part of the way.

“The food was running out and we were tired of sitting underground,” Demyanchuk said by phone from central Ukraine in early May.

    Demyanchuk said the soldiers made her wait for when the skies appeared clearer and urged them to move as fast as possible. They did not try to stop her leaving.

Their journey to Ukraine-controlled territory lasted several days. As bombers flew overhead, they walked past buildings with fresh graves dug in the yard and saw the charred body of a soldier on the seafront, she said.

But, being outside the bunker, she said she felt “an indescribable feeling of freedom.”

The other three women had more than a month to wait before hearing via their one crackly radio of international efforts to evacuate civilians from the plant.

“It gave us a bit of strength that soon, in just a little bit more time, we would get out of there,” said 25-year-old Tetyana Trotsak, whose asthmatic mother was suffering in the damp air.

After a local ceasefire was brokered, evacuation began in early May. But it was a bittersweet moment for those in the bunker – the group would only be allowed to leave in stages.

     “The hardest part was waiting and hoping we’d get out. It was a kind of despair,” said Solop.

    Food was running dangerously low, even with extra rations shared by the Ukrainian forces who were holed up in another part of the plant that had become their last redoubt after Russian troops seized control of Mariupol.    

    Eleven people, including families with children and people with health problems, went first, clambering out of the bunker and weaving their way through rubble to get to a convoy of buses.

“We were so happy for them, but we stayed there and thought what if they’ve taken this group and are not able to do more?,” said Solop.

     A couple of days later, the soldiers told Babeush and others they had five minutes to get ready. They were told they had to hurry to make it to the buses or the final group in the bunker might miss the chance to evacuate that day.

Babeush grabbed little more than some of the drawings that had been taped up around the shelter. “The war has taught me you don’t need material things. For life, you don’t need anything – just people you can rely on,” she said.

World

U.S. to allow baby formula imports amid nationwide shortage

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Empty shelves show a shortage of baby formula at CVS in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. May 10, 2022. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal/File Photo

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Eric Beech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States will allow baby formula imports from foreign makers that do not usually sell their products here, the Food and Drug Administration said on Monday, as it tries to ease a nationwide shortage that has left parents scrambling to feed their babies.

The temporary move could help put more formula onto U.S. shelves in a few weeks, a U.S. FDA official said during a news briefing. Foreign makers will need to meet a list of safety and nutritional standards provided by the FDA.

U.S. baby formula has been in low stock after a February recall of baby powder formula and plant closure by one of the nation’s main manufacturers, Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT). The FDA was investigating after reports that four babies who had been fed formula made there became ill from Cronobacter sakazakii infections.

The FDA and Abbott agreed on Monday on the steps needed to reopen the plant, which an FDA official said could happen in the near term. The company said it would restart the plant within two weeks after the FDA confirms it has met these requirements.

In its investigation, the FDA found bacteria contamination in environmental samples taken at the site and noted problems such as standing water and improper sanitization of footwear.

Abbott said in a statement that there is no conclusive evidence to link Abbott’s formulas to these infant illnesses. It also said the investigation found no contamination in finished product.

“We have been working to address the FDA’s observations so we can restart operations,” the company said in a statement on Monday.

The shortage of Abbott formula has been compounded by supply-chain snags and historic inflation, leaving about 40% of baby formula products out of stock nationwide, data shows.

“We know many parents and caregivers are feeling frustrated by their inability to access needed or desired infant formula and critical medical foods. Please know that we at the FDA are doing everything in our power to address these challenges as quickly as possible,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said.

He encouraged formula makers to increase their supply and the FDA said some including Gerber, part of Nestle SA (SIX:NESN), and Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc (LON:RKT) had already done so.

FDA officials said during the briefing that the agency’s ability to determine a causal link between the consumption of the product from the plant and the four cases of bacterial infections was hindered by the fact that it only had genetic sequences available on two of the infections.

Abbott has shipped to the United States millions of cans of formula from its FDA-approved Ireland facility.

The White House separately said it was continuing talks with the major formula manufacturers to identify logistical hurdles and provide any transportation support that could help them and major retailers get formula to where it is needed.

“This is principally an issue of production more than goods movement,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters at a White House briefing.

A White House official earlier said the government has offered transportation and logistics support to Abbott as well as Reckitt Benckiser, Nestle and Perrigo Co (NYSE:PRGO) Plc, in addition to top retailers such as Target Corp (NYSE:TGT), Amazon.com Inc (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Walmart (NYSE:WMT) Inc.

Congress this week also plans to address infant formula rules regarding the Women, Infants and Children program, a federal assistance nutrition program administered by U.S. states, as well as emergency funding to shore up supplies.

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Ukrainian troops evacuate from Mariupol, ceding control to Russia

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© Reuters. A bus carrying wounded service members of Ukrainian forces from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol drives under escort of the pro-Russian military in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict upon arrival in Novoazovsk, Ukraine May 16, 2022. REUTERS

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By Natalia Zinets

KYIV/NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine’s military said on Tuesday it was working to evacuate all remaining troops from their last stronghold in the besieged port of Mariupol, ceding control of the city to Russia after months of bombardment.

The evacuation likely marked the end of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war and a significant defeat for Ukraine. Mariupol is now in ruins after a Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people in the city.

With the rest of Mariupol firmly in Russian hands, hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians had holed up beneath the city’s Azovstal steelworks. Civilians inside were evacuated in recent weeks, and more than 260 troops, some of them wounded, left the plant for Russian-controlled areas late on Monday.

“The ‘Mariupol’ garrison has fulfilled its combat mission,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement announcing evacuations.

“The supreme military command ordered the commanders of the units stationed at Azovstal to save the lives of the personnel… Defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time,” it added.

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister said 53 injured troops from the Azovstal steelworks were taken to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, some 32 kilometres (20 miles) to the east.

Another 211 people were taken to the town of Olenivka, in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar said. All of the evacuees will be subject to a potential prisoner exchange with Russia, she added.

It was not clear how many troops remained in Azovstal. Ukraine’s military said efforts were under way to evacuate those still inside.

Reuters saw five buses carrying troops from Azovstal arrive in Novoazovsk late on Monday. Some of the evacuated troops were wounded and carried out of the buses on stretchers. Some 600 troops were believed to have been inside the steel plant.

“We hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an early morning address. “There are severely wounded ones among them. They’re receiving care. Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive.”

Arriving in Novoazovsk in a bus marked with Z, a symbol for Russia’s invasion, men could be seen stacked on stretchers on three levels. They stared out the windows without reacting. One man was wheeled out, his head tightly wrapped in thick bandages.

Since Russia launched its invasion in February, Mariupol’s devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine’s resistance and of Russia’s willingness to devastate Ukrainian cities that hold out.

The first evacuations late on Monday came hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.

LVIV EXPLOSIONS, KHARKIV FIGHTING

Moscow calls its nearly three-month-old invasion a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.

Russia’s invading forces have run into apparent setbacks, with troops forced out of the north and the environs of Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.

Areas around Kyiv and the western city of Lviv, near the Polish border, have continued to come under Russian attack. A series of explosions struck Lviv early on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

On Monday, Ukraine’s defence ministry troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40 km north of Kharkiv.

The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia’s main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month yet achieving only small gains.

PUTIN CLIMBDOWN OVER NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on Monday to climb down from threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Putin said.

The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric, after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.

Soon before Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”

Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.

“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said.

Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.

“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon militarily non-aligned status – a cornerstone of national identity for more than 200 years.

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U.S. Air force says it conducted successful hypersonic weapon test

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Air Force said on Monday it had conducted a successful test of a hypersonic weapon, which flew at five times the speed of sound.

The test was conducted on Saturday off the coast of Southern California when a B-52 bomber released an Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, the Air Force said in a statement.

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