Russian forces began leaving the Chernobyl nuclear plant after soldiers received “large doses” of radiation from digging trenches at the heavily polluted site, Ukraine’s state electric company said Thursday as fighting raged on the outskirts of Kyiv and other fronts.
Energoatom did not give details of the condition of the troops or the number of people affected. But she said the Russians dug into the woods within the exclusion zone around the now-closed plant, the site in 1986 of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
Energoatum said the troops “panicked at the first sign of illness” which “sprang up very quickly” and were preparing to leave.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.
Russian forces captured the Chernobyl site in the early stages of the invasion on February 24, raising fears that it could cause damage or disruption that might spread radiation. On-site workforces oversee the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the buried concrete ruins of the explosive reactor.
The reported withdrawal came amid continued fighting and indications that the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation as a cover as it regroups, resupplies and redeploys its forces for an escalating offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine is witnessing “an increase in Russian forces to launch new strikes on Donbass, and we are preparing for this.”
Meanwhile, a convoy of buses headed to Mariupol in another attempt to evacuate people from the besieged coastal city after the Russian military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area. A new round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting had been scheduled for Friday.
The Red Cross said its teams were heading to Mariupol with medical supplies and other relief items and hoping to get civilians out of the besieged city.
Tens of thousands of people have managed to get out of Mariupol in the past few weeks by humanitarian corridors, reducing its population from 430,000 before the war to an estimated 100,000 as of last week, but other efforts to relieve the city have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.
At the same time Thursday, Russian forces bombed the outskirts of Kyiv, two days after the Kremlin announced that it would drastically reduce operations near the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv to increase confidence between the two sides.
The British Ministry of Defense also reported “significant Russian bombing and missile strikes” around Chernihiv. The region’s governor, Vyacheslav Chaus, said Russian forces are moving in but may not be withdrawing.
The Russian military also reported strikes on Ukrainian fuel supplies late on Wednesday, and Ukrainian officials said artillery strikes in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past day.
Despite the fighting, Russia said it adhered to a ceasefire all the way from Mariupol to the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhia.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Verychuk said 45 buses will be sent to transport civilians who suffered the worst deprivations during the war.
Food, water and medical supplies ran out during weeks of siege and bombardment of the city. Civilians who manage to leave usually do so with private cars, but the number of drivable vehicles remaining in the city has dwindled and fuel is low.
“It is extremely important that this process take place,” the Red Cross said in a statement. “The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”
Talks between Ukraine and Russia are set to resume Friday via video link, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arachamia, after weeks of war that saw thousands killed and 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the country.
But there seemed to be little confidence that the two sides would resolve the conflict anytime soon, particularly after Russian attacks in areas that offered to reduce them.
After a telephone conversation with the Russian President, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that the conditions were not yet “mature” for a ceasefire and that he was not ready to meet with Zelensky until the negotiators could do more work. .
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that alliance information indicates that Russia is not reducing its military operations in Ukraine, but is instead trying to regroup, resupply its forces and strengthen its offensive in the Donbass.
“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Stoltenberg said. At the same time, he said, pressure continues on Kyiv and other cities, and “we can expect more offensive actions that will bring more suffering.”
Donbass is the predominantly Russian industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. In the past few days, the Kremlin, in an apparent shift in its war aims, has said that its “main objective” is now to control Donbass, which consists of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.
Donetsk’s largest rebel leader, Denis Pushlin, has ordered the formation of a city government to rival Mariupol, according to Russian state news agencies, signaling Russia’s intent to control and administer the city.
In the outskirts of Kyiv, the region’s governor, Oleksandr Palfuuk, said on social media that Russian forces had bombed Irpin and Makarev and that battles had taken place around Hostomil. Pavlyuk said Ukraine launched counterattacks and some Russian withdrawals around the eastern suburb of Brovary.
Ukraine’s emergency services also said the death toll had risen to 20 in a Russian missile attack on Tuesday on a government administrative building in the southern city of Mykolaiv.
As Western officials search for clues about Russia’s next move, a senior British intelligence official said frustrated Russian soldiers in Ukraine have been refusing to follow orders, sabotaging their equipment and have accidentally shot down their planes.
In a speech in Australia, Jeremy Fleming, head of the cyber-espionage agency GCHQ, said Putin appeared to have “significantly misjudged” the invasion.
US intelligence officials concluded that his advisers were misleading Putin about how bad the war was because they were afraid to tell him the truth.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the United States was mistaken and that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon have the real information about what is happening in the Kremlin.”
Karmanau reports from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
. “Proud zombie lover. Evil pop culture buff. Amateur thinker. Total food practitioner. Tv evangelist.”