Russians leave Chernobyl site as fighting rages elsewhere

  • Ukrainian forces stand in the abandoned city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on Feb. 4 in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Mykola Tymchenko)

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian troops handed control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant back to the Ukrainians and left the heavily contaminated site early Friday, more than a month after taking it over, Ukrainian authorities said, as fighting raged on the outskirts of Kyiv and other fronts.

Ukraine’s state power company, Energoatom, said the pullout at Chernobyl came after soldiers received “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches in the forest in the exclusion zone around the closed plant. But there was no independent confirmation of that.

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The withdrawal took place amid growing indications the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation in Ukraine as cover while regrouping, resupplying its forces and redeploying them for a stepped-up offensive in the eastern part of the country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian withdrawals from the north and center of the country were just a military tactic and that the forces are building up for new powerful attacks in the southeast.

“We know their intentions,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know that they are moving away from those areas where we hit them in order to focus on other, very important ones where it may be difficult for us.”

“There will be battles ahead,” he added.

Meanwhile, a convoy of 45 buses headed to Mariupol in another bid to evacuate people from the besieged port city after the Russian military agreed to a limited cease-fire in the area. But Russian forces blocked the buses, and only 631 people were able to get out of the city in private cars, according to the Ukrainian government.

Twelve Ukrainian buses were able to deliver 14 tons of food and medical supplies to Mariupol, but the aid was seized by Russian troops, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said late Thursday.

The city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war. Tens of thousands have managed to get out of Mariupol in the past few weeks by way of humanitarian corridors, reducing its population from a prewar 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 as of last week, but other relief efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.

A new round of talks was scheduled for Friday, five weeks into the war that has left thousands dead and driven 4 million Ukrainians from the country.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been informed by Ukraine that the Russian forces at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster had transferred control of it in writing to the Ukrainians.

The last Russian troops left the Chernobyl plant early Friday, the Ukrainian government agency responsible for the exclusion zone said.

Energoatom gave no details on the condition of the soldiers it said were exposed to radiation and did not say how many were affected. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, and the IAEA said it had not been able to confirm the reports of Russian troops receiving high doses. It said it was seeking more information.

Russian forces seized the Chernobyl site in the opening stages of the Feb. 24 invasion, raising fears that they would cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation. The workforce at the site oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concrete-entombed ruins of the reactor that exploded in 1986.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said it “seems unlikely” a large number of troops would develop severe radiation illness, but it was impossible to know for sure without more details.

He said contaminated material was probably buried or covered with new topsoil during the cleanup of Chernobyl, and some soldiers may have been exposed to a “hot spot” of radiation while digging. Others may have assumed they were at risk too, he said.

Early this week, the Russians said they would significantly scale back military operations in areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to increase trust between the two sides and help negotiations along.

But in the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media Thursday that Russian forces shelled Irpin and Makariv and that there were battles around Hostomel. Pavliuk said there were Ukrainian counterattacks and some Russian withdrawals around the suburb of Brovary to the east.

Chernihiv came under attack as well.

At least one person was killed and four were wounded in the Russian shelling of a humanitarian convoy of buses sent to Chernihiv to evacuate residents cut off from food, water and other supplies, said Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova.

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