A group of children stuck in a clinic in Ukraine’s besieged Mariupol for weeks have been taken to Russian-controlled territory, a carer and a relative of the clinic’s worker told AFP Sunday.
The 19 children, aged between four and 17 and mostly orphans, have been living in freezing cellars hiding from shelling in harrowing conditions.
From nearby towns in the Donetsk region, they were sent to a Mariupol sanatorium that specialises in pulmonary conditions before President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine.
Their carers have been unable to get to them since due to heavy fighting in the strategic port city that has been destroyed by Russian forces.
The foster carer of six of the children, Olga Lopatkina, has been calling for their evacuation and wants to take them west and out of the country.
But on Sunday, her oldest son, 17, called her to say they had been taken to Donetsk – Ukraine’s separatist capital now under Russian control.
She told AFP they were in a hospital in Donetsk.
“I don’t know how to get them now,” she said, adding that the call was quick and no adult had informed her to tell her about the children’s whereabouts.
Alexei Voloshchuk, a relative of one of the sanatorium workers who took refuge with the children before escaping Mariupol, said Russian forces turned them away from an evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled Zaporizhzhia.
AFP was unable to reach the clinic itself because of a near total communications blackout in Mariupol. The city has also been cut from water, gas and electricity supplies.
He said the clinic informed him that a local lawmaker arrived to take the children in an ambulance car to Zaporizhzhia, via an officially agreed humanitarian corridor.
But at a checkpoint in Berdyansk, Russian forces said that the children were from the Donetsk region and turned them around to the rebel capital.
Most of the children are from foster care homes in Ukraine’s Donetsk region that did not fall into the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
Concerns have grown for their fate, with Geneva-based Stop TB charity telling AFP it was “desperate” to evacuate them from fighting zones.