Russian troops leave Chernobyl after being exposed to radiation while digging trenches in Ukraine

Kyiv, Ukraine — Russian troops began evacuating the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after soldiers received “significant doses of radiation” from digging trenches at the highly contaminated site, Ukraine’s state-owned energy company said Thursday, as in the outskirts of Kyiv and others Fronts heavy fighting raged.

Energoatom, the operator, gave no immediate details of the condition of the troops or how many were affected. But the Russians were said to have dug into the forest inside the exclusion zone around the now-closed facility that was the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986.

The troops “panicked” at the first sign of illness, which “came up very quickly,” and began preparing to withdraw, Energoatom said.

The Russians occupied the Chernobyl site in the early stages of the February 24 invasion, stoking fears they would cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation. Site personnel oversee the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concreted debris from the exploded reactor.

The pullout came amid ongoing fighting and signs the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation as a cover while it regroups and resupplies its forces and redeploys them for an intensified offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine “sees a buildup of Russian forces for new attacks on Donbass and we are preparing for it”.

Meanwhile, a convoy of buses drove to Mariupol to evacuate people from the besieged port city after the Russian military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the region. And a new round of talks was scheduled for Friday to end the fighting.

The Red Cross said its teams were on their way to Mariupol with medical supplies and other supplies, hoping to bring civilians out of the besieged city. Tens of thousands have managed to get out via humanitarian corridors in recent weeks, reducing the city’s population from 430,000 before the war to an estimated 100,000 last week, but other efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.

At the same time, Russian forces shelled Kyiv suburbs two days after the Kremlin announced it would significantly curtail operations near the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv in a bid to “boost mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”

The UK Ministry of Defense also reported “significant Russian shelling and rocket attacks” around Chernihiv. The governor of the area, Viacheslav Chaus, said Russian troops were on the move but might not retreat.

The Russian Defense Ministry also reported fresh attacks on Ukrainian fuel depots late Wednesday, and Ukrainian officials said there had been artillery barrages in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past day.

Despite fighting in those areas, the Russian military said it was committed to a ceasefire on the route from Mariupol to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhia.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses were being sent to pick up civilians who have suffered some of the worst hardships of the war.

Food, water and medical supplies have all run out during a week-long blockade and bombardment of the city. Civilians who have managed to leave the city have usually done so in private automobiles, but the number of drivable vehicles remaining in the city has dwindled and fuel is scarce.

“It is extremely important that this operation takes place,” the Red Cross said in a statement. “The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”

Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume via video on Friday, according to head of the Ukrainian delegation David Arakhamia, six weeks after the start of a bloody war that has left thousands dead and a staggering 4 million Ukrainians flee the country.

But there seemed little confidence that the two sides would resolve the conflict any time soon, especially after the Russian military’s attacks on places where it had offered to recall.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the conditions for a ceasefire in Ukraine are not “ripe” and he is not ready to meet Zelenskyy until negotiators do more work, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said in a phone call on Tuesday Wednesday with the Russian President.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance intelligence services indicate Russia is not scaling back its military operations in Ukraine, but is instead repositioning and redeploying its forces to join attacks in Donbass.

“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Stoltenberg said, adding that Russia is “trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbass region.” At the same time, the pressure on Kyiv and other cities will be maintained, and “we can count on additional offensive actions that will bring even more suffering.”

Donbass is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. In recent days, in an apparent shift in its war goals, the Kremlin has said that its “primary objective” is now gaining control of the Donbass, which consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.

The top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, issued an order to set up a rival city government for Mariupol, according to Russian state news outlets, as a sign of Russia’s intention to hold and govern the city.

In the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media that Russian troops had shelled Irpin and Makariv and that there had been fighting around Hostomel. Pavliuk said there had been Ukrainian counterattacks and some Russian retreats around the Brovary suburb to the east.

Ukraine’s emergency services also said the death toll rose to 20 in a Russian missile attack on Tuesday at a government administration building in the southern city of Mykolaiv.

As Western officials search for clues to Russia’s next move, a senior British intelligence official said demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to obey orders and are sabotaging their equipment, accidentally shooting down their own planes.

Speaking in Australia, Jeremy Fleming, head of electronic spy agency GCHQ, said Putin appeared to have “massively misjudged” the invasion. US intelligence officials have also concluded that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how bad the war is going because they are afraid to tell him the truth.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the US was wrong and “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon has the real information about what’s going on in the Kremlin.”

In other developments, Putin approved the drafting of 134,500 new conscripts starting April 1. The enlistment is a routine event but comes amid concerns that some conscripts could be deployed to Ukraine.

Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have assured that conscripts will not take part in the war in Ukraine. However, earlier this month the Russian military admitted that a number of conscripts landed in Ukraine and were captured there.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Russian troops leave Chernobyl after being exposed to radiation while digging trenches in Ukraine

Dais Johnston

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