Ukraine and Russia were to hold a new round of talks on Friday, but Ukraine’s president has warned that Russia could regroup.
KYIV, Ukraine — Russian troops left the heavily contaminated Chernobyl nuclear site early Friday after Ukrainians returned control, officials said, as the country’s eastern parts brace for fresh attacks and the Russians pounded another in the besieged port city of Mariupol. The aid mission has been blocked.
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.
As controls were exchanged amid rising signals, the Kremlin regrouped as cover on talk of de-escalation in Ukraine, redeploying its forces and re-deploying them to make a move into the country’s eastern side. using to.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that the Russian withdrawal from the country’s north and center was just a military tactic to build up forces for new powerful attacks in the southeast. A new round of talks between the countries was set for Friday, in a five-week conflict that has killed thousands and driven 4 million Ukrainians out of the country.
“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.
Following a plea from Zelensky when he addressed the Australian parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his country would send mine-resistant armored personnel carriers to Ukraine.
He said on Friday the four-wheel-drive “Bushmaster” vehicles, specifically requested by Zelensky, would be flown in Europe but did not say how many would be delivered or when.
“We’re not just sending our prayers, we’re sending our guns, we’re sending our weapons, we’re sending our humanitarian aid, we’re sending all this, our body armor, all these things and we’ We’re going to send our armored vehicles, our Bushmasters, too,” Morrison said.
In the besieged strategic port city of Mariupol, Russian forces blocked a convoy of 45 buses in an attempt to evacuate people after Russian forces agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area. According to the government of Ukraine, only 631 people were able to get out of the city in private cars.
Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said the Russian military also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies in a dozen buses trying to make it to Mariupol.
The city has been the scene of some of the worst pains of the war. Thousands have managed to escape through humanitarian corridors over the past few weeks, reducing the population from 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 by last week, but other relief efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.
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 Chernobyl 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 workforce oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concrete-embedded ruins of a 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.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi was in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on Friday to hold talks with senior officials about the nuclear issues in Ukraine.
The IAEA said that in addition to concerns about Chernobyl, nine of Ukraine’s 15 operational reactors are currently in use, including two at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya facility.
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.
At a Ukrainian military post outside Kyiv, soldiers and officers said they did not believe Russian forces had left the capital.
“What does this mean, significantly reducing combat actions in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions?” asked the Brigadier. General Valery Embakov. “Does this mean that instead of 200 missiles launched on Kyiv there will be 100 missiles or something?”
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 conditions for a ceasefire were not yet “mature” and that he was not ready for a meeting with Zelensky until negotiators worked out more, Italian Premier Mario Draghi with the Russian leader. Said after a telephone conversation. ,
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.
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.”
Karamanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.