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Evacuations underway in Mariupol; Pelosi visits Ukraine
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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — A long-awaited effort to evacuate civilians from a steel plant in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol was underway Sunday, the United Nations said, while U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi revealed she visited Ukraine’s president to show unflinching American support for the country’s defense against Russian aggression.

U.N. humanitarian spokesman Saviano Abreu told The Associated Press that the operation to bring civilians out of the sprawling Azovstal steel plant was being carried out with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials.

As many as 100,000 people are believed to still be in blockaded Mariupol, including up to 1,000 civilians who were hunkered down with an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters beneath the Soviet-era steel plant — the only part of the city not occupied by the Russians.

The fate of the Ukrainian fighters was not immediately clear.

Like other evacuations, success of the mission in Mariupol depended on Russia and its forces, deployed along a long series of checkpoints before reaching Ukrainian ones.

Zaporizhzhia, a city about 141 miles northwest of Mariupol, was the destination of the evacuation effort, Abreu said. He said women, children and the elderly — who have been stranded for nearly two months — will be evacuated to the city, where they will receive immediate humanitarian support, including psychological services.

Mariupol has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. A maternity hospital was hit with a lethal Russian airstrike in the opening weeks of the war, and about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater where civilians were taking shelter.

Abreu said U.N. officials would not provide additional details of the evacuation “to guarantee the safety of the civilians and humanitarians in the convoy.”

However, the Mariupol City Council said in a post on the Telegram messaging app Sunday that evacuation of civilians from other parts of the city would begin Monday morning, because of security concerns. People fleeing Russian-occupied areas in the past have described their vehicles being fired on, and Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of shelling evacuation routes on which the two sides had agreed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a tweet earlier Sunday that the first group of about 100 people was headed to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

“Tomorrow we’ll meet them in Zaporizhzhia. Grateful to our team! Now they, together with #UN, are working on the evacuation of other civilians from the plant,” he tweeted.

A team from Doctors Without Borders was at a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia on Sunday, in preparation for the U.N. convoy’s arrival, if successful. Stress, exhaustion and low supplies of food were likely to have weakened the health of civilians who have been trapped underground at the plant.

Ukrainian regiment Deputy Commander Sviatoslav Palamar, meanwhile, called for the evacuation of wounded Ukrainian fighters as well as civilians. “We don’t know why they are not taken away and their evacuation to the territory controlled by Ukraine is not being discussed,” he said in a video posted Saturday on the regiment’s Telegram channel.

Video and images from inside the steel plant, shared with the AP by two Ukrainian women who said their husbands were among the fighters refusing to surrender there, showed men with stained bandages, open wounds or amputated limbs, including some that appeared gangrenous. The AP could not independently verify the location and date of the video, which the women said was taken last week.

Meanwhile, Pelosi, a California Democrat who is second in line to succeed the president, visited Kyiv on Saturday, the most senior American lawmaker to travel to the country since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. Her visit came just days after Russia launched rockets at the capital during a visit by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

During a Sunday news conference in the Polish city of Rzeszow, Pelosi said she and other members of a U.S. congressional delegation met with Zelenskyy and brought him “a message of appreciation from the American people for his leadership.”

Rep. Jason Crow, a U.S. Army veteran and a member of the House intelligence and armed services committees, said he came to Ukraine with three areas of focus: “Weapons, weapons and weapons.”

“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win. 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,” the Colorado Democrat said.

In Zaporizhzhia on Sunday, residents ignored air raid sirens and warnings to shelter at home to visit cemeteries, when Ukrainians observe the Orthodox Christian day of the dead.

“If our dead could rise and see this, they would say, ‘It’s not possible, they’re worse than the Germans,’” Hennadiy Bondarenko, 61, said while marking the day with his family at a picnic table among the graves. “All our dead would join the fighting, including the Cossacks.”

Russian forces have embarked on a major military operation to seize significant parts of southern and eastern Ukraine following their failure to capture the capital, Kyiv. Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov, is a key target because of its strategic location near the Crimea Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Russia’s high-stakes offensive has Ukrainian forces fighting village-by-village and more civilians fleeing airstrikes and artillery shelling.

Ukrainian intelligence officials accused Russian forces of seizing medical facilities to treat wounded Russian soldiers in several occupied cities and towns, as well as “destroying medical infrastructure, taking away equipment, and leaving the population without medical care.”

In a Facebook post Sunday, the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said that in the Volchansk, Kharkiv region, tuberculosis patients were “denied medical care and kicked out into the street” as facilities were being used to treat wounded Russian troops. It said that four hospitals in Ukraine’s east were similarly “forced to service the needs of the Russian Federation,” claiming that Russian forces organized an impromptu ammunition depot at one facility near Zaporizhzhia, and prohibited staff from providing medical care to local residents. The AP could not immediately verify the accuracy of the claims.

Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in eastern Ukraine has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. Also, both Ukraine and Moscow-backed rebels have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.

But Western military analysts have suggested the offensive in the Donbas region, which includes Mariupol, was going much slower than planned. So far, Russian troops and the separatists appeared to have made only minor gains in the month since Moscow said it would focus its military strength in the east.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance has flowed into Ukraine since the war began, but Russia’s vast armories mean Ukraine will continue to require huge amounts of support.

In the days before the war began, Western intelligence estimated Russia had positioned near the border as many as 190,000 troops; Ukraine’s standing military totals about 200,000, spread throughout the country.

With plenty of firepower still in reserve, Russia’s offensive still could intensify and overrun the Ukrainians. Overall the Russian army has an estimated 900,000 active-duty personnel. Russia also has a much larger air force and navy.

___

Fisch reported from Sloviansk. Associated Press journalists Jon Gambrell and Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Trisha Thompson in Rome and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine


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PHOTOS: Cool, classic cars on display at Kilgore Cruise Night
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Dozens of classic vehicles wowed spectators Saturday night during Kilgore Cruise Night in downtown.

The free event is held the fourth Saturday of each month in downtown. Hours during summer months are 5 to 8 p.m.

For information, go to www.facebook.com/KilgoreCruiseNight .


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AP wire
Researchers returning for assessment of last U.S. slave ship
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MOBILE, Ala. — Researchers are returning to the Alabama coast near Mobile to assess the sunken remains of the last slave ship to bring captive Africans to the United States more than 160 years ago.

The Alabama Historical Commission says a team will begin a 10-day evaluation of the remnants of the Clotilda on Monday. Experts have described the wreck as the most complete slave ship ever discovered.

The agency has hired Resolve Marine, a salvage and services company, for work involving the Clotilda. The ship was scuttled in the muddy Mobile River after illegally dropping off 110 West Africans on the Alabama coast in 1860, decades after Congress outlawed the international slave trade.

The company plans to moor a 100-foot-long barge at the site with equipment to support divers and store artifacts that are removed from the water for analysis and documentation.

“It is a tremendous duty to ensure the Clotilda is evaluated and preserved,” Aaron Jozsef, the project manager for Resolve Marine, said in a statement.

Some have advocated for removing the wreckage from the water and placing it on display in a new museum that’s being discussed, and officials have said the work will help determine whether such a project is possible.

The Clotilda’s voyage was financed by a wealthy Alabama businessman, Timothy Meaher, whose descendants still have extensive land holdings around Mobile. Enslaved upon their arrival in Alabama, some of the Africans started a community called Africatown USA just north of Mobile after the Civil War, and many of their descendants still live there.

Ship wreckage in the river was identified as being that of the Clotilda in 2019, and officials have been assessing the site and deciding what to do with it ever since. While small parts of the two-masted wooden schooner have been brought to the surface, researchers have found that most of the ship — including the pen that was used to imprison the captives — remains intact on the river bottom.

Working with the state and SEARCH Inc., Resolve Marine said it will perform work including an assessment of the Clotilda’s hull and a limited excavation of artifacts. It’s also developing a plan to conserve the wreckage where it’s currently located in the river a few miles north of Mobile.

The work, which is being funded with a $1 million state appropriation, “will add to the collective understanding of the vessel and the site’s potential to yield significant archaeological information about the ship and its final voyage,” Jozsef said.


Ap
AP wire
Arizona wildfire forces fast decision
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In a small enclave in northern Arizona where homes are nestled in a Ponderosa pine forest and tourists delight in camping, hiking and cruising on ATVs, high winds are nothing new.

But when those winds recently ramped up and sent what was a small wildfire racing toward their homes, residents in the close-knit Girls Ranch neighborhood near Flagstaff faced a dilemma: quickly grab what they could and flee, or stay behind and try to ward off the towering, erratic flames.

Most of the property owners left. One couple stood their ground. Another raced to save animals on neighbors’ properties.

The blaze that started Easter Sunday swept across vacant lots, scorched tree stumps and cast an orange glow on the parched landscape. Flames licked the corner of one woman’s porch and destroyed two other homes, leaving a mosaic of charred land as the 30-square-mile fire finally neared full containment this weekend.

Elsewhere, firefighters in northern New Mexico on Sunday continued to battle the largest active wildfire in the U.S. as strong winds pushed it closer to the small city of Las Vegas.

Officials said the blaze had damaged or destroyed 172 homes and at least 116 structures since it started April 6 and merged with another wildfire a week ago. Officials said the fire had grown to 162 square miles, but was still 30% contained.

The blazes are among many this spring that forced panicked residents to make life-or-death, fight-or-flee snap decisions as wildfire season heats up in the U.S. West. Years of hotter and drier weather have the exacerbated blazes, leading them to frequently burn larger areas and for longer periods compared with previous decades.

Some who live in Girls Ranch had just minutes to react.

Polly Velie rushed out of a physical therapy appointment when she learned her home was in the evacuation zone. She sped through embers and thick smoke to find her husband hosing down the driveway. Her voice shrieked as she yelled above the smoke alarms going off throughout the house.

“Bill, we gotta go!” she hollered.

But Bill Velie — who cut fire lines with a dozer in multiple states for years — was intent on staying. It’s the same decision the couple made in 2010 when another wildfire in the area forced evacuations. Polly Velie said she’s never been more scared, but the choice wasn’t difficult: “This is our house, and he’s my husband.”

The couple watched neighbors load up horses and donkeys and haul them off. They saw torched tumbleweeds fly across a major highway, flames tear through an old stone house and a propane tank burst.

“Boy, that made her jump,” Bill Velie said. “Just like a bomb went off.”

Firefighters encouraged them at least a handful of times to leave, and they agreed to if the winds shifted. More than anything, Bill Velie reassured them he had things under control.

He had thinned parts of the national forest on the other side of his property line, and he regularly mows the grass. They kept sprinklers running outside, and Bill Velie bladed the edge of the forest a few times where it looked like the fire was crawling toward neighbors’ homes. At night, the flames twinkled on the hill behind them like red stars in the sky.

“I’ve seen some exciting stuff, but not like this for a while,” he said. “Do I miss it? No.”

Ali Taranto and her husband, Tim, own a house in the neighborhood. They saw news about the fire on a neighborhood Facebook page and drove from Winslow, where she works as a nurse about an hour away, to check on the 5-acre property.

Ali Taranto drove past the neighborhood’s namesake Girls Ranch property, once a home for troubled girls, and saw parts of the white fence melted to the ground.

She checked on her neighbor, Marianne Leftwich, who said she was fine. But Taranto didn’t hear from her for about an hour. Then, Leftwich’s daughter called to say her mother was stuck in her house.

Taranto alerted emergency responders, she said, but dispatch told her she’d probably get to Leftwich before they could. Taranto found the woman semi-conscious and gasping for air, in need of help to evacuate, Taranto said.

“As a community in an emergency like this, all the systems were totally overwhelmed,” Taranto said. “Thank God I got there and got her out in time.”

Taranto took Leftwich’s dogs to a kennel, then returned to rescue a goat and a cow she saw roaming around nearby.

Other than some burned grass and brush, Taranto’s property was unscathed.

Harriet Young’s house overlooks the neighborhood. She hired an arborist last year to remove dead trees and cut low-lying branches as a fire-prevention measure. She had pinkish gravel laid on the long driveway and around the front of her house.

Young believes it saved the home she and her late husband built in the 1990s. The wildfire burned all around it, sparing the house and the invasive olive trees that her daughter wished hadn’t survived.

“This was a miracle, that’s all I got to say,” said Young’s daughter, Stacey Aldstadt, who stayed with her mom for a few days after the fire swept through.

When they were allowed back home a week ago on Sunday, they had no heat or hot water. Young spent four days battling with propane companies to get it turned back on. Finally, she persuaded a former fire chief to come by and fix it.

Everyone here knows Young, the staunch Democrat who regularly hosts Christmas parties. She made call after call as the fire progressed and planned to stay home, based on what she’d heard.

But neighbor Jeanne Welnick saw the plume of smoke that seemed so distant grow and move toward their neighborhood, and urged Young to leave.

“I owe Jeanne a huge ‘thank-you,’” Young said.

The Welnicks initially bought the house behind Young’s as a vacation property. The previous owners built it with wildfire in mind.

The 14-inch-thick exterior walls are concrete sandwiched by Styrofoam cells topped by a metal roof. Those walls are still standing.

The rest of the Victorian ranch-style home painted orange with green trim isn’t.

Flames tore through, twisting strips of metal that creaked as the wind blew through. Shards of glass and nails shot out onto the driveway where the Welnicks wrote their names and the year they bought the house, 2004.

A cherub statue the Welnicks placed outside as a memorial to a child they lost to miscarriage looked down at the rubble. Two packages that were delivered to the walkway after the home burned held material for trellis arches the Welnicks planned to assemble over their vegetable garden. Unburned pavers and bags of sand sat off to the side of the garage, ready to be laid down.

At midday, a bell that was near the front door to welcome them home rang out, hidden among piles of debris.

Jeanne Welnick scanned the property, wondering which trees would survive. She grieved the loss of her paintings and a squash blossom necklace that was passed down through her husband’s family. She kept it in a glass case.

“I’d like to look for that, but it’s probably not even there,” said Welnick, an artist.

Their dogs, guitars and some sculptures made it out with them, through what Welnick described as a roaring train, dark, scary, like Armageddon.

In the aftermath, some neighbors struggled with the right words to say to those who lost their homes. Some offered food, clothes, a place to stay and set up fundraising accounts.

“They kept saying, ‘We love you so much; we love you so much,’” Welnick said. “And they do.”


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