Russian troops handed back control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant to Ukrainians and left the heavily contaminated site early Friday, more than a month after taking it, Ukrainian officials said, as fighting on the outskirts of Kyiv and other fronts Had happened.
Ukraine’s state power company, Energotom, said troops in Chernobyl pulled out after receiving “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 this.
Amid growing signs the withdrawal took place, the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation in Ukraine as cover, while regrouping and redeploying its forces for a step-up offensive in the country’s eastern side. do.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Russian withdrawal from the country’s north and center was just a military tactic and that forces were preparing for new powerful strikes in the southeast.
“We know their intentions,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know they’re moving away from areas where we’ve hit them to focus on other, very important people where it might be difficult for us.”
“There will be a fight ahead,” he said.
Meanwhile, a convoy of 45 buses headed for Mariupol in another attempt to evacuate people from the besieged port city after Russian forces agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area. But the Russian military blocked the buses, and according to the Ukrainian government, only 631 people were able to get out of the city in private cars.
Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said late Thursday that twelve Ukrainian buses were capable of delivering 14 tons of food and medical supplies to Mariupol, but the aid was confiscated by Russian troops.
The city has been the scene of some of the worst pains of the war. Tens of thousands of people have been able to escape Mariupol via humanitarian corridors over the past few weeks, reducing its population from pre-war 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 last week, but other relief efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks. Has been done. ,
A new round of talks is set for Friday, five weeks after the war that left thousands dead and 4 million Ukrainians expelled from the country.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been informed by Ukraine that the Russian military at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster had transferred its control in writing to Ukrainians.
The last Russian troops left the Chernobyl plant early Friday, the Ukrainian government agency responsible for the exclusion zone said.
Energoatom did not provide any details about the condition of the soldiers exposed to radiation and did not say how many were affected. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin and the IAEA said it was not able to confirm reports of Russian troops receiving higher doses. It said it was seeking more information.
Russian forces seized the Chernobyl site in the early stages of the February 24 offensive, raising fears that they might cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation. The on-site task force oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concrete-embedded ruins of the reactor that exploded in 1986.
Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said it was “unlikely” that large numbers of soldiers might have had severe radiation sickness, but it was impossible to know for sure without more details.
He said the contaminated material was probably buried or covered with new top soil during the clean-up of Chernobyl, and that some soldiers may have been exposed to a “hot spot” of radiation during the excavation. Others may have assumed that they were also at risk, he said.
Earlier this week, the Russians said they would significantly reduce military operations in Kyiv and the areas around the northern city of Chernihiv in a bid to boost trust and aid in dialogue between the two sides.
But in the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media on Thursday that Russian forces opened fire on Irpin and Makarev and fighting broke out around Hostomel. Pavliuk said Ukrainian counterattacks and some Russian withdrawals had taken place in the east around the suburb of Brovary.
Chernihiv also came under attack. Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmila Denisova said at least one person was killed and four injured in Russian shelling of a humanitarian convoy of buses sent to Chernihiv to evacuate residents cut off from food, water and other supplies.
Ukraine also reported Russian artillery barrages in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said intelligence indicates that Russia is not reducing its military operations in Ukraine, but instead is looking to regroup, redeploy and strengthen its offensive in the Donbass. is trying.
“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Stoltenberg said. At the same time, he said, pressure is being maintained on Kyiv and other cities, and “we can expect that additional aggressive action will bring even more suffering.”
The Donbass is a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. Over the past few days, the Kremlin, in an apparent change in its war objective, said its “main goal” is now to gain control of the Donbass, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.
The top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, issued an order to establish a rival city government for Mariupol, according to Russian state news agencies, in a sign of Russian intent to capture and administer the city.
With talks between Ukraine and Russia resuming via video, there was little confidence that the two sides would settle the conflict any time soon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that conditions for a ceasefire were not yet “mature” and that he was not ready for a meeting with Zelensky until negotiators worked out more, after Italian Premier Mario Draghi telephoned the Russian leader. But said after the conversation.
In other developments, Ukraine’s emergency services said Tuesday that the death toll in a Russian missile attack on a government administrative building in the southern city of Mykolaiv rose to 20.
As Western officials search for clues about Russia’s next move, a top British intelligence official said that frustrated Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to fulfill orders and sabotaging their equipment and by mistake. Has shot down his own plane.
In a speech in Australia, Jeremy Fleming, the head of the GCHQ electronic spy agency, said Putin had clearly described the invasion as “largely wrong”.
The Pentagon reported Thursday that an initial half-dozen consignments of weapons and other security aid from the US have arrived in Ukraine as part of an $800 million aid package approved by President Joe Biden this month.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the shipment included Javelin anti-tank weapons, Stinger anti-aircraft missile systems, body armor, medical supplies and other materials.
US intelligence officials have concluded that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the war is going because they are afraid to tell him the truth.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the US was wrong and that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon has real information about what is happening in the Kremlin.”
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