Mariupol mayor says contact has been lost with Ukrainian forces in Azovstal plant as heavy fighting continues

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Pro-Russian troops stand guard next to a bus for transporting evacuees near a temporary accommodation center in the village of Bezimenne in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, on May 1. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) says that in the 24 hours to 8 a.m. Wednesday (local time) a total of 517 people have been evacuated from the besieged city of Mariupol to its center some 15 miles (25 kilometers) to the east.

It said 61 of the evacuees were children but it’s unclear how many, if any, of the total were evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant.

CNN is unable to verify the numbers reported.

The DPR has set up a tented reception center at Bezimenne, where people leaving Mariupol are screened.

Ukrainian officials have described the facility, and three other similar facilities around Mariupol, as filtration centers where people are often subjected to abuse and harassment, as well as long delays.

The DPR’s Ministry of Emergency Situations manages the center at Bezimenne, which has seen more than 27,000 people pass through since the beginning of March, according to the DPR.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has previously commented on the number of civilians being evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, and says a number of them have decided to stay in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

When evacuees emerge from sprawling complex, they are given a choice of traveling to Ukrainian or Russian-held territory.

Those willing to enter Ukrainian territory are delivered to representatives of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, state news agency TASS reported.

Some background: A CNN investigation in April revealed that Russian forces and allied separatist soldiers were taking Mariupol residents to a so-called “filtration center” set up in Bezimenne, where they were registered before being sent on to Russia — many against their will.

Ukrainian government and local Mariupol officials say that tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been forcibly deported to the Donetsk People’s Republic and Russia since the war began.

In April, CNN interviewed 10 people, including local Mariupol residents and their loved ones, who were taken by Russian and DPR soldiers to Russian-held towns against their will before being deported to the Russian Federation.

CNN spoke with two people who were brought to Bezimenne before being sent to Russia. They described a massive military tent, where Russian and DPR soldiers were processing hundreds of people — they were fingerprinted, photographed, their phones searched, interrogated, passports reviewed and registered into databases.