© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A render shows a residential building damaged during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 18, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo

(Reuters) – The city council of Ukraine’s Mariupol said Russian troops forcibly deported several thousand people from the besieged city last week after Russia spoke of “refugees” coming from the strategic port.

“Over the past week, several thousand residents of Mariupol have been deported to Russian territory,” the municipality 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 (mainly women and children) were hiding from the continuous bombing.”

Reuters was unable to independently verify the claims.

Russia’s defense ministry said buses carrying people it called refugees from Mariupol began arriving to Russia on Tuesday, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported last week. The ministry was not immediately available to comment on the Mariupol City Council’s claims.

According to local authorities, some 400,000 people have been trapped in Mariupol, on the Sea of ​​Azov, for more than two weeks.

Russia’s TASS news agency reported on Saturday that 13 buses would move to Russia carrying more than 350 people, about 50 of whom would be sent by rail to the Yaroslavl region and the rest to temporary transition centers in Taganrog, a port city in Russia’s Rostov region.

The Russian Defense Ministry said this month that Russia had prepared 200 buses to “evacuate” Mariupol civilians.

Citing emergency services, the RIA Novosti agency reported last week that nearly 300,000 people, including some 60,000 children, have arrived in Russia in recent weeks from the Luhansk and Donbas regions, including Mariupol.

Russia’s defense ministry said this month that more than 2.6 million people in Ukraine have asked to be evacuated.

Reuters was unable to immediately verify those messages.

Mariupol, a key connection to the Black Sea, has been a target since the war started on February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say Putin has started an unprovoked war of aggression.

Since Russia has attempted to conquer most of Ukraine’s southern coast, Mariupol has acquired great significance, located between the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula to the west and the Donetsk region to the east, which is partially controlled by pro-Russian forces. separatists.

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