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At least 50 people have been killed in an airstrike on a school in eastern Ukraine

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

An airstrike this morning in eastern Ukraine killed over 50 people who were hiding in the basement of a school. Several dozen were rescued from the rubble. And in the south, the U.N. is evacuating dozens of Ukrainian civilians, mostly women and children, who were sheltering under a massive steel plant in the port city of Mariupol. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Ukraine and joins us now. Good morning, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: That bombing of a school happened in the region of Luhansk. What more do you know about it?

KAKISSIS: So what we know so far is that authorities in the Luhansk area say that the attack happened in a village, that a Russian missile hit a school that was used as a bomb shelter. The head of Luhansk's Regional Authority said in a video posted to social media that at least 90 people were sheltering at the school. And two bodies have been found so far, and 60 people are missing and feared dead. There's been a lot of intense fighting in the Luhansk region in the last few days.

RASCOE: And what details do you have about the civilians who've left the steel plant in Mariupol?

KAKISSIS: So, yeah, you know, we've been hearing about Mariupol for a long time. This is, you know, a city virtually destroyed by Russian bombing and shelling. And yet Russian troops are still attacking it, and that's because Ukrainian soldiers are holding on in the tunnels under the steel plant in Mariupol. For weeks, you know, many civilians were there, too, and there was fear that they would never, ever get out, that they would even die there. But civilians have escaped in the last week with the help of Ukrainian soldiers, the United Nations and the International Red Cross. So that's a tiny bit of good news amid so much destruction and death. At the moment, the U.N. is currently evacuating at least 50 civilians. There may be more. We don't know that yet. Many are women and children. Ukrainian officials say that these are the last civilians inside the steel plant, but the U.N. won't confirm that. We may know more later when the evacuees arrive to the city of Zaporizhzhia, you know, where I am. And, you know, these evacuations are difficult. They're time-consuming. They're tense. You have to negotiate with Russian forces and pass military checkpoints. So we'll see when the evacuees get here.

RASCOE: What about the Ukrainian soldiers? Are they also being evacuated?

KAKISSIS: So, you know, that's what the government says, that they really want that to happen, but it's unclear how this would happen. And, you know - and the soldiers themselves - they say they feel abandoned. They actually held a press conference this morning via Zoom from inside the plant. And they call the plant the territory Azovstal. One of those speaking was Sviatoslav Palamar, who is the second-in-command of the Azov Regiment in the Ukrainian army. He spoke through an interpreter about how dangerous it is being at the plant with constant Russian bombing and shelling and how they have cared for civilians there and how they feel abandoned by international aid organizations. And here he is talking about how soldiers have evacuated civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SVIATOSLAV PALAMAR: (Through interpreter) For two and a half months, we are asking the whole world - all of the journalists, all of the politicians - to evacuate civilians. And only now we managed to evacuate just a couple of hundreds of civilians. But a multitude of civilians were evacuated onto the territory which is under control of Russia, so they were deported to Russia. So, you know, this is joy through tears because our work is not accomplished.

KAKISSIS: So, Ayesha, you know, you hear a lot of pain and anger there because, you know, they want to defend Ukraine, and they want to help Ukrainians. You know, I should note that not all the soldiers inside the plant are men. Some are women. We're not sure how many are women. But their families want them evacuated. So the Ukrainians are asking Doctors Without Borders, the medical charity, to retrieve them. And we're not clear how that's going to happen because this kind of operation is, again, incredibly dangerous and complicated. The charity's Ukraine office has tweeted like, OK, we're talking to the Ukrainian authorities to see how we can make this happen or at least how to make best use of our medical expertise in helping anyone at Azovstal.

RASCOE: In the last 30 seconds we have left, why is Mariupol so central in this fight?

KAKISSIS: So, you know, for Ukrainians, Mariupol, you know, used to be a key port city. It still is a key port city in many of their minds. It was an industrial powerhouse. And since the Russian invasion began, it's become a symbol of how cruel and senseless this war is. You know, as I mentioned earlier, the city is destroyed. People call it a hellscape. And the scene many associate with Mariupol is the bombing of the maternity hospital a couple of months ago with these images of bloodied, injured or dead mothers and newborn babies in a place where they should've been safe.

RASCOE: NPR's Joanna Kakissis, thank you so much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.