LVIV: Russian invasion forces seized Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant on Friday (Mar 4) in what Washington called a reckless assault that risked catastrophe, although a blaze in a training building was extinguished and officials said the facility was now safe.
Combat raged elsewhere in Ukraine as Russian forces surrounded and bombarded several cities in the second week of the assault launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A presidential adviser said an advance had been halted on the southern city of Mykolayiv after local authorities said Russian troops had entered it. If captured, the city of 500,000 people would be the biggest yet to fall.
The capital Kyiv, in the path of a Russian armoured column that has been stalled on a road for days, came under renewed attack, with air raid sirens blaring in the morning and explosions audible from the city centre.
The US Embassy in Ukraine called the Russian assault on the Zaporizhzhia plant a “war crime”. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said it showed how reckless the Russian invasion has been.
“It just raises the level of potential catastrophe to a level that nobody wants to see,” he told CNN.
Video verified by Reuters showed one building aflame and a volley of incoming shells before a large incandescent ball lit up the sky, exploding beside a car park and sending smoke billowing across the compound.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed or wounded and more than 1 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Feb 24, when Putin ordered the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two.
Although the nuclear plant was later said to be safe and the fire out, officials worried about the precarious circumstances.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Raphael Grossi paid homage to the plant’s Ukrainian staff: “to their bravery, to their courage, to their resilience because they are doing this in very difficult circumstances.”
The plant was undamaged from what he believed was a Russian projectile, Grossi said. Only one of its six reactors was working, at around 60 per cent of capacity.
An official at Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear plant operator, told Reuters there was no further fighting and radiation was normal, but his organisation no longer had contact with the plant’s managers or control over its nuclear material.
Russia’s defence ministry also said the plant was working normally. It blamed the fire on a “monstrous attack” by Ukrainian saboteurs and said its forces were in control.
“EUROPEANS WAKE UP”
“Europeans, please wake up. Tell your politicians – Russian troops are shooting at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address. In another address, he called on Russians to protest.
Russian forces advancing from three directions have besieged cities, pounding them with artillery and air strikes.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz became the latest Western leader to phone Putin and demand he call off the war.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Russia was only increasing its strikes on civilians: “It is clear to see that this war of aggression by Putin is targeting the civilian population with the most brutal rigor.”
Moscow says its aim is to disarm its neighbour and capture leaders it calls neo-Nazis. Ukraine and its Western allies call that a baseless pretext for a war to conquer a country of 44 million people.
In Kyiv’s Borshchahivka neighbourhood, the twisted engine of a cruise missile lay in the street where it had apparently been downed overnight by Ukrainian air defences. Residents were furious but also proud of the successful defence of the city of 3 million, which Russia had hoped to capture within days.
Russian troops “all should go to hell,” said Igor Leonidovich, 62, an ethnic Russian who had moved to Ukraine 50 years ago as a boy. “For the occupiers it is getting worse and worse, every day.”
In Russia itself, where Putin’s main opponents have largely been jailed or driven into exile, the war has led to a further crackdown on dissent. Authorities have banned reports that refer to the “special military operation” as a “war”. Anti-war demonstrations have been squelched with thousands of arrests.
On Friday, Russia shut down foreign broadcasters including the BBC and Voice of America. The main independent Russian broadcasters, TV Dozhd and Ekho Moskvy radio, were shuttered on Thursday. The lower house of parliament introduced legislation to jail people who spread “fake” reports for 15 years.
Russia has been subjected to economic isolation never before visited on such a large economy. Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said more EU sanctions were coming, potentially including a ban on Russian-flagged ships in European ports and blocking imports of steel, timber, aluminium or coal.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Western countries should look at measures targeting Russia’s oil and gas sector – still excluded from sanctions.
Russian forces have made their biggest advances in the south, where they captured their first sizeable Ukrainian city, Kherson, this week. The mayor of nearby Mykolayiv said they were now inside his city, a shipbuilding port of 500,000 people.
Zelenskiy’s military adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said the Russian advance there had been halted: “We can feel cautious optimism about the future prospects of the enemy offensive – I think that it will be stopped in other areas also.”
The southeastern port of Mariupol has been encircled and bomabarded, Britain said in an intelligence update. Authorities there have described a humanitarian emergency. Bombing has worsened in recent days in the northeast cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv.
Ukrainians have been fleeing West, many crowding into Lviv near the Polish border.
James Elder, a spokesperson for the UN children’s agency, said doctors in Lviv were preparing a system to identify children in case of mass casualties: “A green dot means fine over here, a yellow dot means critical support. They are learning a black dot means the child won’t make it.”