Nine volunteer drivers on rescue mission to Mariupol detained by Russian forces, aid group says

A total of 10 minibus drivers have arrived in the Donbass region to help evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Mariupol, operating private vehicles on a low-key rescue mission. Russian soldiers detained them and tried to get them to drive the buses to Russia. When the drivers refused, they were taken prisoner, said Alex Voronin, head of the non-governmental organization.

Voronin told CNN that he had lost contact with all but one of the drivers.

“All of them carried out the evacuation of people in the direction of Mariupol-Zaporizhzhia, they were sent on their trips on different dates: March 26, 27 and 31,” Voronin told CNN. “Communication with them was broken the day after departure. According to the people who managed to evacuate, the Russian army took the vehicles with people in Mariupol from the drivers, the evacuees were taken to the village of Nikolske, the drivers themselves were taken away for identification. Some of them are being held in remand centers in Donetsk.”

One of the 10 drivers was released, Voronin told CNN, and from him “we know that three of the missing are in Donetsk. They were interrogated with brute force, poorly fed and kept in appalling conditions. Everyone else was told that they had the right to keep [in detention] up to 30 days”.

CNN cannot independently verify the whereabouts of the drivers or the conditions in which they are detained. Voronin said the drivers left the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia and did not drive in a single convoy.

The city of Mariupol has been devastated by weeks of bombing and is surrounded by Russian checkpoints. On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed South Korean lawmakers and said he believes there are tens of thousands of dead in the southern port city.

“The occupants blocked it and did not even allow food and water to be taken away. They tried to capture it in the most brutal way, only to destroy everything in the city,” he said.

Ukrainian authorities have said around 100,000 people still require evacuation from the city, but say Russian forces have not allowed evacuation bus convoys to reach the city. Adding to the humanitarian crisis, US and Ukrainian officials and humanitarian watchdogs say Russian and separatist troops are forcing tens of thousands of civilians into so-called “filtration centers” in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic before to transfer them to Russian territory.

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Voronin’s group was formed at the beginning of the war, on February 24, in Ukraine, to help evacuate Ukrainians. He says his group, one of many that sprang up in the days after the Russian invasion, has “evacuated more than 2,000 people, children, disabled and wounded, and delivered more than 200 tons of food, humanitarian aid and medicine”. to the same places where we are evacuating people.

Voronin says he doesn’t even know who on the Russian side he can talk to to secure the release of his drivers. CNN has been unable to verify the drivers’ whereabouts amid the fog of war and confusion on the front lines and is reporting this at the aid group’s request in the hope that drawing attention to the story will provide protection of some sort. to the missing drivers.

CNN has solicited comment from Ukrainian officials overseeing the negotiation of humanitarian evacuation corridors in Ukraine.

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