Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) -
Dozens of civilians have left a besieged steel plant in the city of Mariupol, Russia said on Sunday, as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced support for Ukraine's 'fight for freedom' during a visit to Kyiv.
Russia's defence ministry said a total of 46 civilians left in two groups on Saturday from the area around the Azovstal plant -- the last holdout of Ukrainian forces in the city.
The development raised hopes of a larger, long-awaited evacuation from the battered plant, where local fighters say they and hundreds of civilians are still sheltering.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video Saturday evening that Kyiv was 'doing everything to ensure that the evacuation mission from Mariupol is carried out'.
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol's mayor, said on Telegram on Sunday that there would be 'radio silence on the evacuation situation'.
Thousands have been killed and millions displaced since Russia began its invasion on February 24.
Western powers have rushed to send military aid to Ukraine and imposed heavy sanctions on Russia.
'We are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom... Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,' Pelosi said at a meeting with Zelensky.
Pelosi also said in a statement that 'additional American support is on the way' following President Joe Biden's announcement last week of a $33-billion (31-billion-euro) arms and support package.
- Russian ruble introduced -
The conflict is now concentrated in the east and south of Ukraine, although there have been Russian missile strikes across the country, mainly targeting infrastructure and supply lines.
On Saturday, Ukrainian authorities said a Russian missile strike had destroyed the runway of Odessa airport in the southwest of the country.
Near Bucha, the town near Kyiv that has become synonymous with allegations of Russian war crimes, police reported finding three bodies shot in the head with their hands tied.
The victims were found in a pit and had been 'brutally killed' by Russian soldiers, the police said in a statement.
'The victims' hands were tied, cloths were covering their eyes and some were gagged. There are traces of torture on the corpses,' the statement said.
Ukrainian prosecutors say they have pinpointed more than 8,000 war crimes carried out by Moscow's troops and are investigating 10 Russian soldiers for suspected atrocities in Bucha.
Russia has denied any involvement in civilian deaths in Bucha.
Meanwhile, Russia has moved to solidify its grip on areas it controls and from Sunday introduced the Russian ruble in the region of Kherson -- initially to be used alongside the Ukrainian hryvnia.
'Beginning May 1, we will move to the ruble zone,' Kirill Stremousov, a civilian and military administrator of Kherson, was cited as saying earlier by Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti.
He said there would be a period of four months in which the hryvnia could be used, but then 'we will completely switch to settlements in rubles'.
- 'Terrible and relentless fear' -
On the front line in the east, Russian troops have advanced slowly but steadily in some areas -- helped by massive use of artillery -- but Ukrainian forces have also recaptured some territory in recent days, particularly around the city of Kharkiv.
One of the areas taken back from Russian control was the village of Ruska Lozova, which evacuees said had been occupied for two months.
'It was two months of terrible fear. Nothing else, a terrible and relentless fear,' Natalia, a 28-year-old evacuee from Ruska Lozova, told AFP after reaching Kharkiv.
'We were in the basements without food for two months, we were eating what we had,' said Svyatoslav, 40, who did not want to give his full name, his eyes red with fatigue.
Kyiv has admitted that Russian forces have captured a string of villages in the Donbas region and has asked Western powers to deliver more heavy weapons to bolsters its defences there.
Zelensky said he spoke on Saturday with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson 'on defence support for Ukraine and other efforts necessary to end the war'.
'I informed Boris about the current situation on the battlefield in the areas of active clashes and in detail about the situation in our east, in Mariupol, in the south of the country,' he said.
'All the leaders of the free world know what Russia has done to Mariupol. And Russia will not go unpunished for this.'
Russia has warned Western countries against sending more military aid.
On Sunday, Russia also suggested that it could seize the Russian-based assets of countries it deems hostile in retaliation to a US proposal to sell off Russian oligarchs' assets and pay the proceeds to Ukraine.
'As far as companies based in Russian territory are concerned whose owners are citizens of hostile countries and where the decision has been taken' to seize Russian assets, 'it is fair to take reciprocal measures and confiscate assets,' said the speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin.
'And the proceeds from the sale of these assets will be used for our country's development,' he said on his Telegram channel.