A total of 10 minibus drivers arrived in Donbass to help evacuate civilians from besieged Mariupol using private vehicles as part of a low-profile rescue operation. Russian soldiers stopped them and tried to force them to take the buses to Russia. When the drivers refused, they were taken prisoner, said Alexei Voronin, head of the public organization.
Voronin told CNN that he had lost contact with all but one of the drivers.
“They all carried out the evacuation of people in the direction of Mariupol-Zaporozhye, they were sent on business trips on different dates – March 26, 27 and 31,” Voronin told CNN. “Communication with them was interrupted the next day after the departure. According to the people they managed to evacuate, the Russian military took away cars with people in Mariupol from the drivers, the evacuees were taken to the village of Nikolskoye, the drivers themselves were taken away for identification. Some of them are in pre-trial detention centers in Donetsk.”
One of the 10 drivers was released, Voronin told CNN, and from him “we know that the three missing are in Donetsk. They were interrogated with brute force, fed poorly and kept in appalling conditions. right to keep [in detention] up to 30 days.
CNN cannot independently verify the whereabouts of drivers or their conditions of detention. Voronin said the drivers had left the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporozhye and were not traveling in any convoy.
The city of Mariupol, devastated by weeks of shelling, is surrounded by Russian checkpoints. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed South Korean lawmakers on Monday, saying he believes tens of thousands of people have died in the southern port city.
“The occupiers blocked it and did not even let them bring food and water there. They tried to capture it in the most brutal way possible — just to destroy everything in the city,” he said.
Ukrainian officials have said about 100,000 people still need to be evacuated from the city, but say Russian forces have prevented evacuation bus convoys from reaching the city. Exacerbating the humanitarian crisis, U.S. and Ukrainian officials and humanitarian watchdogs say Russian and separatist forces are herding tens of thousands of civilians into so-called “filtration centers” in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and then moving them into Russian territory.
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 after the Russian invasion – “evacuated more than 2,000 people, children, the disabled and the wounded, delivered more than 200 tons of food, humanitarian aid and medicines. to the same places where we evacuate people.”
Voronin says he doesn’t even know who he can talk to on the Russian side to secure the release of his drivers. CNN was unable to verify the whereabouts of the drivers amidst the fog of war and confusion on the front lines and is reporting this at the request of the aid team in the hope that bringing the story to light will provide some sort of protection for the missing drivers.
CNN has requested comment from Ukrainian officials overseeing negotiations on humanitarian evacuation corridors in Ukraine.