ISTANBUL — An attempt to rescue Turkish citizens stranded in Mariupol has been stymied by Russian forces, who have refused to allow buses waiting to pick up the civilians into the city, according to the leader of a mosque where many are sheltering.
“Our 30 buses are waiting at an area that is in Russian control,” Ismail Hacioglu, head of the Sultan Suleiman Mosque association, said Thursday. “The Russians are not letting our buses pass. If our buses went to the Ukrainian-held area, then we wouldn’t have any problems.”
Turkish officials have said since last week that they are trying to rescue an estimated 100 citizens who are still in the hard-hit southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and have expressed some optimism that Ankara’s close ties with Moscow — as well as Kyiv — would aid in the effort. But during a visit to Moscow on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested that a “misunderstanding on the ground” was hampering any progress.
“Both sides are saying something different,” he said. His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, blamed Ukraine for not allowing the Turkish nationals to leave. Hacioglu said as many as 200 people from Mariupol were sheltering in the mosque, including non-Turks.
“We take everyone in, whether they are Muslim or not,” he said. “There are people who have had their homes bombarded and demolished, and we give them space in the mosque, too. There are so many people.”
At one point in the last few weeks, “a bomb” fell close to the mosque, but since then, the building hadn’t been targeted, he added. He said Turkish officials have shared the mosque’s coordinates with Russian leaders, hoping to protect the site.
He has received scattered reports from those inside Mariupol, whenever cellphone service is available. Those still there describe a city full of destroyed buildings, constant bombing and shelling and bodies in the streets.
“It is a heartache,” he said. “The mosque is the safest place in the city right now.”