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Nine volunteer drivers on rescue mission to Mariupol detained by Russian forces, aid group says

A total of 10 minibus drivers had driven into the Donbas region to help evacuate civilians from the besieged city of Mariupol, operating private vehicles in a low-profile rescue mission. Russian soldiers stopped them and tried to get them to drive the buses into Russia. When the drivers refused, they were taken prisoner, said Alex Voronin, the head of the non-government organization.

Voronin told CNN he had lost contact with all the drivers but one.

“All of them carried out the evacuation of people in the direction of Mariupol-Zaporizhzhia, they were sent on their trips on different dates – March 26, 27 and 31,” Voronin told CNN. “Communication with them broke off the next day after departure. According to the people they managed to evacuate, the Russian military took the vehicles with people in Mariupol from the drivers, the evacuees were taken to the village of Nikolske, the drivers themselves were taken away for identification. Some of them are being held in pre-trial detention centers in Donetsk.”

One of the 10 drivers was released, Voronin told CNN, and from him “we know that three of the missing are in Donetsk. They were interrogated with brute force, fed poorly and kept in appalling conditions. All the rest were told they have the right to keep [in detention] up to 30 days.”

CNN cannot independently verify the whereabouts of the drivers or the conditions under which they are being held. Voronin said drivers left the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia and did not drive in a single convoy.

The city of Mariupol has been devastated by weeks of shelling and is ringed by Russian checkpoints. On Monday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed South Korean lawmakers, saying he believes there are tens of thousands dead in the southern port city.

“The occupiers blocked it and did not even allow food and water to be brought there. They tried to capture it in the most brutal way – just to destroy everything in the city,” he said.

Ukrainian officials have said around 100,000 people still require evacuation from the city but say Russian forces have not allowed convoys of evacuation buses to reach the city. Adding to the humanitarian crisis, US and Ukrainian officials and humanitarian watchdogs say Russian and separatist troops are forcing tens of thousands of civilians into so-called “filtration centers” in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic before moving them into Russian territory.

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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 in the days since the Russian invasion — has “evacuated more than 2,000 people, children, the disabled and the wounded, and delivered more than 200 tons of food, humanitarian aid and medicine to the same locations where we are evacuating people.”

Voronin says he does not even know who on the Russian side he can talk to in order to secure the release of his drivers. CNN has not been able to verify the whereabouts of the drivers amid the fog of war and confusion in the frontlines and is reporting this at the request of the aid group in the hopes that bringing attention to the story will bring protection of some sort to the missing drivers.

CNN has requested comment from Ukrainian officials overseeing the negotiation of humanitarian evacuation corridors in Ukraine.

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