Ukraine: Russians abandon Chernobyl after radiation exposure

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 on Thursday, when on the outskirts of Kyiv and at fighting raged on other fronts.

Energoatom gave no details on 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 prepared to withdraw, Energoatom said.

There was initially no comment from the Kremlin.

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 employees oversee the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concreted ruins of the exploded reactor.

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

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

The reported pullout comes amid ongoing fighting and signs that 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 Russian forces building up 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 leave Mariupol via humanitarian corridors in recent weeks, reducing the population from 430,000 before the war to an estimated 100,000 last week, but other efforts to decongest the city have been thwarted by ongoing Russian attacks.

At the same time, Russian forces shelled Kyiv suburbs on Thursday, 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 trust between the two sides.

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 withdraw.

Russia’s military also reported conducting strikes against Ukrainian fuel stocks late Wednesday, and Ukrainian officials said there had been artillery barrages in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past day.

Despite the fighting, Russia said it was committed to a ceasefire along 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 Friday via video, according to head of the Ukrainian delegation David Arakhamia, dragging weeks into a 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 anytime soon, especially after Russian attacks in zones where Russia had offered reductions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the conditions are not “ripe” 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 leader .

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Alliance intelligence services indicate that 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.

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 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.”

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

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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