Ukraine is working on a diplomatic effort to save defenders trapped in Mariupol's Azovstal steelworks and this involves influential intermediaries and states, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday.
Zelensky, who made the remarks in a late-night video address, did not give details.
As the Russia-Ukraine War enters day 72, Russia continues its assault on the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, which has hindered both its advance in Donbas and the achievement of a symbolic victory ahead of Russia's May 9 Victory Day holiday.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 50 women, children and elderly people were evacuated from the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol on Friday and accused Russia of constantly violating a local ceasefire.
"Therefore the evacuation was extremely slow ... tomorrow morning we will continue the evacuation operation," she said in an online post.
The Russian assault on the Azovstal steel plant continues into its second day, as the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol has become the site of heavy urban warfare.
The Russian attack on Azovstal, which has served as a fortress for Ukrainian forces, "despite Russian statements claiming they would seek only to seal it off," the UK Defense Ministry noted in a Thursday morning intelligence update.
"This effort has come at personnel, equipment and munitions cost to Russia," said the UK Defense Ministry. "Whilst Ukrainian resistance continues in Azovstal, Russian losses will continue to build and frustrate their operational plans in southern Donbas.
A senior Ukrainian official said on Friday a new attempt was underway "at the moment" to evacuate civilians trapped with Ukrainian fighters in the Azovstal.
Andriy Yermak, the head of the presidential staff, gave no details and it was not immediately clear what stage the new rescue effort was at.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council on Thursday that a third operation was underway to evacuate civilians from Mariupol and Azovstal.
"The next stage of rescuing our people from Azovstal is underway at the moment. Information about the results will be provided later," Yermak said.
The Pentagon said on Thursday that Russia was predominantly attacking Mariupol using airstrikes.
"We again see the violence that's being visited upon Mariupol and the destruction that's being caused there as a continued bombardment by Russian airstrikes in Mariupol," Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their Thursday phone call that Russia was ready to ensure the evacuation of civilians, but called on Kyiv to order its Azovstal forces to lay down its arms, Russian state media outlet TASS reported.
Some analysts and intelligence sources have asserted that Russia's May 9 Victory Day, which celebrates the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany, may be an important date for Russia's military efforts — Either the start date of a renewed push, when war will be officially declared or a time for symbolic victory.
The renewed effort by Russia to secure Azovstal and complete the capture of Mariupol is likely linked to the upcoming 9 May Victory Day commemorations and Putin’s desire to have a symbolic success in Ukraine," the UK Defense Ministry assessed.
Kirby said that the Pentagon had no information about the significance of the date.
"I can't say that looking at what we can see that we can say definitively that there's a change in behavior or aggressive or momentum based on the coming day of May ninth," said Kirby. "And what they plan to do or say on Victory Day, that's really up to them. I don’t think we have a perfect sense."
Donbas momentum stall
Russia is continuing its operations to achieve full control of the Donbas region, the Ukrainian military said on Friday morning, repeating its assessment that the objective was to establish a land corridor between the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk regions and Crimea.
"In the Donbas region we would still assess that the Ukrainians are putting up a very stiff resistance and that the Russians have not made the progress that we believe they expected to make by this point," said Kirby. "That's not to say they haven't made any progress. I think we would continue [to] assess it as incremental and uneven, but not non-existent. And again we think that a big part of it is the Ukrainian resistance but also partly through their own uneven efforts to fix the challenges that they had north around Kyiv."
The Russian military had significant supply and logistical issues during its aborted push to Kyiv. Russia has attempted to improve both issues in Donbas, where supply lines would be shorter, but the problems have persisted.
The Ukrainian military said that Russian forces continued to gather materials and develop its supply lines at the end of the week.
Biden announces new security aid for Ukraine, talks with Trudeau
US President Joe Biden announced on Friday a package of security assistance to Ukraine that will provide additional artillery munitions, radars and other equipment that a US official separately said was worth $150 million.
In a statement, Biden did not specify the amount. His administration has nearly exhausted funding from a drawdown authority and he urged Congress to pass his proposed $33 billion assistance package for Ukraine, he added.
Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a phone call on Friday, underscored their commitment to holding Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine and discussed efforts to provide security assistance to Ukraine, the White House said in a statement.
Biden and Trudeau also discussed their upcoming participation in the Summit of the Americas in June in Los Angeles, it said.