Russians abandon Chernobyl because of radiation problems; Ukraine is preparing for renewed attacks

Kyiv, Ukraine – Russian troops exited the heavily contaminated Chernobyl nuclear site early Friday after handing back control to Ukrainians, authorities said, as residents in parts of eastern Ukraine braced for renewed attacks and blocked food shipments and other humanitarian supplies waited.

Ukraine’s state-owned energy company Energoatom said the Chernobyl withdrawal came after soldiers received “significant doses of radiation” while digging trenches in the forest in the exclusion zone around the closed facility. The International Atomic Energy Agency said it could not independently confirm the exposure claim.

In the first such attack, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region accused Ukraine of flying gunships over the border and attacking an oil depot on Friday morning.

The depot of the Russian energy giant Rosneft is around 35 kilometers north of the Ukrainian-Russian border. The helicopter attack set fire to the facility and two people were injured, according to a telegram sent by Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.

“The fire in the oil depot is the result of an airstrike by two helicopters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which entered the territory of Russia at low altitude,” the governor wrote in the messaging app.

It was not immediately possible to verify the allegation or images of the alleged attack that were circulating on social media. Russia has previously reported shelling from Ukraine, including an incident last week that killed a military chaplain, but no intrusion into its airspace.

Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have recaptured the villages of Sloboda and Lukashivka, which lie south of the besieged northern city of Chernihiv and lie on one of the main supply routes between the city and the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, according to the UK MoD.

Ukraine has also continued to conduct successful but limited counterattacks east and north-east of Kyiv, the ministry said.

Russian forces have subjected both Chernihiv and Kyiv to continued air and ground missile attacks, although Moscow officials said on Tuesday they intend to scale back military activity in those areas.

Western officials said there was mounting evidence that Russia was using its talk of de-escalation in Ukraine as a cover to regroup, bolster its forces and use them in an intensified offensive in the eastern part of the country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that the Russian withdrawal from the north and center of the country was just a military tactic to build strength for new attacks in the south-east.

“We know their intentions,” said Zelenskyj in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know they are moving away from the areas where we have met them to focus on other, very important areas where we may find it difficult.”

“There will be fights ahead,” he added.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators planned to resume talks via video on Friday, five weeks after the start of a conflict that has left thousands dead and displaced more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine. There seemed little confidence that either side would agree on their respective demands any time soon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the conditions are not “mature” for a ceasefire and he is not ready to meet Zelenskyy until negotiators do more work, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said after a phone call with the Russian government on Thursday Russian leader.

Following a request from Zelenskyy when addressing the Australian Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country would send mine-resistant infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine.

He said the four-wheel-drive Bushmaster vehicles specifically requested by Zelenskyy would be flown to Europe on Friday, but did not say how many would be delivered or when.

“We’re not just sending our prayers, we’re sending our weapons, we’re sending our ammunition, we’re sending our humanitarian aid, we’re sending all of these, our body armor, all of these things and we’re also going to send our armored vehicles, our Bushmasters,” he said Morrison.

In the encircled strategic port city of Mariupol on Thursday, Russian forces blocked a convoy of 45 buses trying to evacuate people after the Russian military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the region. According to the Ukrainian government, only 631 people were able to leave the city in private cars.

Russian forces also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies on a dozen buses trying to get to Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

The city was the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war. Tens of thousands of residents managed to get out via humanitarian corridors in recent weeks, reducing the population from 430,000 before the war to an estimated 100,000 as of last week. But continued Russian attacks have repeatedly thwarted aid and evacuation convoys.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was informed by Ukraine that Russian forces at Chernobyl had written to Ukrainians transferring control of the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. The last Russian troops left Chernobyl early Friday, the Ukrainian government agency responsible for the exclusion zone said.

Energoatom did not provide information on the condition of the soldiers exposed to the radiation or how many were affected. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, and the IAEA said it was seeking more information.

Russian forces seized 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 staff oversee the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the cast-in ruins of the reactor that exploded in 1986.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said it “seemed unlikely” that large numbers of troops would develop severe radiation sickness, but it was impossible to know for sure without more details.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi was in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on Friday for talks with senior officials on Ukraine’s nuclear issues.

Adding to concerns about Chernobyl, nine of Ukraine’s 15 operational reactors are currently operational, including two at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya facility, the IAEA said.

Earlier this week, the Russians said they would significantly scale back military operations in areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to boost trust between the two sides and speed up negotiations.

But in the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media on Thursday 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.

At a Ukrainian military checkpoint outside of Kyiv, soldiers and officers said they did not believe Russian forces had abandoned the capital.

“What does it mean to significantly reduce combat operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions?” asked Brig. Gen. Valeriy Embakov. “Does that mean 100 missiles will be fired at Kyiv instead of 200 or something else?”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said intelligence agencies indicate Russia is not scaling back its military operations in Ukraine, but instead is trying to regroup, increase its armed forces and step up its offensive in Donbass.

“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Stoltenberg said. 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.


Karmanau reported from Lemberg, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Russians abandon Chernobyl because of radiation problems; Ukraine is preparing for renewed attacks

Dais Johnston

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