Russians leave Chernobyl; Ukraine is preparing for renewed attacks - Bark Sedov

Russians leave Chernobyl; Ukraine is preparing for renewed attacks

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian troops exited the heavily contaminated Chernobyl nuclear site early Friday after handing back control to Ukrainians, authorities said, as eastern parts of the country braced for renewed attacks and the Russians launched another aid mission to the besieged port city blockaded Mariupol.

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. But there was no independent confirmation of this.

The change of control came amid growing evidence that the Kremlin was using talk of de-escalation in Ukraine as a cover to regroup, bolster its forces and use them in a stepped-up offensive in the east 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 forces for new powerful attacks in the south-east. A new round of talks between the countries was scheduled for Friday, five weeks after a conflict that has left thousands dead and forced 4 million Ukrainians out of the country.

Ukrainian refugees board a train en route to Warsaw March 31, 2022 at the railway station in Przemysl near the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian refugees board a train en route to Warsaw March 31, 2022 at the railway station in Przemysl near the Polish-Ukrainian border.


“We know their intentions,” Zelenskyy said 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,” he added.

Following a request from Zelenskyy when addressing Australia’s 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 into 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 this, our body armor, all of these things and we’re going to send our armored vehicles, our Bushmasters, too” said Morrison.

In the encircled strategic port city of Mariupol, 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 have 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 other relief efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was informed by Ukraine that Russian forces at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster had written to the Ukrainians transferring control of it. 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 unable to confirm the reports of the high dose of Russian troops. It said it was looking for 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.

Aerial view of Ukraine's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant showing damage from an explosion and fire in Reactor 4 that released large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere on April 26, 1986.
Aerial view of Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant showing damage from an explosion and fire in Reactor 4 that released large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere on April 26, 1986.

Volodymyr Repik via Associated Press

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.

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.

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 Thursday that Russian forces 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 areas?” asked Brig. Gen. Valeriy Embakov. “Does that mean 100 rockets will be fired at Kyiv or something else instead of 200?”

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 aims, the Kremlin has said that its “main 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.

With talks between Ukraine and Russia set to resume via video, there seemed little confidence that the two sides would resolve the conflict any time soon.

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 .

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.

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.”

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

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