- Intense fighting in area around huge nuclear plant
- No signs of elevated radiation – U.S. Energy Sec
- U.S and UK hit oligarchs with further sanctions
LVIV, Ukraine/KYIV/ March 4 (Reuters) – Russian invasion forces seized Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant on Friday in heavy fighting in southeastern Ukraine, triggering global alarm, but a huge blaze in a training building has been extinguished and officials said the facility was now safe.
Combat raged elsewhere in Ukraine as Russian forces surrounded several cities in the second week of the assault launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A presidential advisor 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.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
The capital Kyiv, in the path of a huge 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 fire at a training building at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant sent global stock markets plunging.
Although the plant was now said to be safe and the fire out, officials remained worried about the precarious circumstances, with Ukrainian staff operating under Russian control in battlefield conditions beyond the reach of administrators.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Raphael Grossi described the situation as “normal operations, but in fact there is nothing normal about this”.
He 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.”
Grossi said the plant was undamaged from what he believed was a Russian projectile. Only one reactor was working, at around 60% of capacity. He was trying to contact Russian and Ukrainian officials to sort out political responsibility.
An official at Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear plant operator, said there was no further fighting and radiation was normal, but his organisation no longer had contact with the plant’s management or control over potentially dangerous nuclear material.
“Personnel are on their working places providing normal operation of the station,” the official told Reuters.
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.
A video from the plant 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.
“EUROPEANS WAKE UP”
Russia’s grip on a plant that provides more than a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity was a big development after eight days of war in which other Russian advances have been stalled by fierce resistance.
“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. read more
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.
Russian forces advancing from three directions have besieged cities, pounding them with artillery and air strikes. Moscow says its aim is to disarm its neighbour and capture leaders it calls neo-Nazis and a threat to its own security.
Ukraine and its Western allies call that a baseless pretext for a war to conquer a country of 44 million people.
FIGHTING RAGES, SANCTIONS MOUNT
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 what they see as 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” or “invasion”. Anti-war demonstrations have been squelched with thousands of arrests.
On Friday, Russia shut down foreign broadcasters including the BBC, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle. The most prominent independent Russian broadcasters, TV Dozhd (Rain) and Ekho Moskvy radio, were shuttered on Thursday. The lower house of parliament introduced legislation on Friday to impose jail terms on people who spread “fake” reports about the military. read more
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.
“I suspect all Russian-flagged ships will be banned from entering EU ports. I also suspect that we’ll be banning other imports like steel, timber, aluminium and possibly coal as well,” Coveney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.
Only one sizeable Ukrainian city, the southern port of Kherson, has fallen to Russian forces since the invasion began.
But Russian forces have made their biggest advances in the south. Mykolayiv’s mayor 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.
In the northeast, along another axis of the Russian attack, Kharkiv and Chernihiv have been under bombardment since the start of the invasion. Strikes have intensified but defenders are holding out.
On Thursday, Russia and Ukraine negotiators agreed at talks on the need for humanitarian corridors to help civilians escape and to deliver medicines and food to areas of fighting.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine, John Irish in Paris, Francois Murphy in Vienna, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and other Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Costas Pitas, Lincoln Feast; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Timothy Heritage
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.