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About 100 civilians escape Mariupol steel plant as Pelosi visits Zelenskyy in Kyiv

In this image released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office on Sunday, May 1, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, centre right, and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi shake hands during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 30, 2022.
In this image released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office on Sunday, May 1, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, centre right, and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi shake hands during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 30, 2022.

Updated May 1, 2022 at 1:05 PM ET

As fighting in Ukraine's east grew more entrenched and some 100 civilians were evacuated from a besieged steel plant in Mariupol, a delegation of congressional Democrats visited Kyiv in a sign of American commitment to Ukraine's efforts.

"Evacuation of civilians from Azovstal began," wrote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Twitter. "Grateful to our team! Now they, together with #UN, are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant."

The battle for Mariupol, the besieged city on Ukraine's southeast coast that Russia prizes as a link to Crimea, has shrunk to the massive Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian forces are making a final stand.

Of the thousands of civilians still trapped in the city, about a thousand are thought to be hiding out in the steel plant alongside the remaining Ukrainian soldiers in an underground maze of shelters and bunkers. Previous attempts to evacuate the civilians have been thwarted by Russia, which has shelled the plant relentlessly.

Saviano Abreu, a spokesperson for the U.N.'s humanitarian office, told news organizations Sunday that the operation was "extremely complex," risky and ongoing.

"There is, right now, ongoing, high-level engagements with all the governments, Russia and Ukraine, to make sure that you can save civilians and support the evacuation of civilians from the plant," Abreu told the Associated Press.

Zelenskyy's announcement about the evacuation followed a visit by congressional Democrats led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the most senior American official to visit Ukraine since the war began in February.

The Democrats visited the Ukrainian capital Saturday, Pelosi revealed in a statement early Sunday. There, they met with Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials for three hours to discuss American support for the war, they said.

Speaking to reporters Sunday in Poland, Pelosi praised Zelenskyy's courage and leadership.

"Our discussion centered around the subjects at hand, as you would suspect: security, humanitarian assistance, economic assistance and eventually rebuilding when victory is won," said Pelosi.

The Democrats' visit came two days after President Biden asked Congress for $33 billion in additional aid to Ukraine. The bulk of the package is military aid, both directly to Ukraine and to other countries to help reduce reliance on Russian weaponry. The package would also offer economic assistance to Ukraine's government and $3 billion in humanitarian aid for refugees.

Biden's request is designed to fund Ukraine's war effort through the end of the fiscal year in September.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he had come to Ukraine with three areas of focus: "weapons, weapons and weapons."

"We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win," he said. "What we have seen in the last two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight and their ability to win – if they have the support to do so."

Crow said the new package reflects how the war has shifted in recent weeks — from the unconventional ambush-type tactics seen in the fighting around Kyiv to a grinding, attrition-type fight over more open territory in Ukraine's south and east.

"The next phase of our support is starting to look like that, too. You're starting to see artillery, longer-range fires, more advanced drones, counter-artillery radar systems, things that will help the Ukrainians better engage at further distances to preserve their force but also reach out further and hit the Russian forces," he said.

Despite bipartisan support for the Ukraine funding, its passage could be delayed. Democrats, led by President Biden, hope to combine it with a new COVID-19 funding measure in a single vote, which Republicans have objected to.

"Given that Russia has redoubled its efforts on the battlefield in the south and the east of Ukraine and given that we expect this fight to be very intense and to last for some period of time, we think there is an imperative to pass this funding as quickly as possible," Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Finer said in a Friday interview with NPR.

Pelosi and Crow were joined by fellow House Democrats Adam Schiff of California, chair of the House Intelligence Committee; New York's Gregory Meeks, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee; Bill Keating and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Barbara Lee of California.

"It's a defining moment, frankly, whether or not the world goes forward with our democratic principles or moves backward, which is what Putin is attempting to do," said Lee, who chairs the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.