The Russian military left the heavily contaminated Chornobyl nuclear site early Friday after handing control over to the Ukrainians, authorities said, as eastern swaths of the land The country prepared for new attacks, and the Russians intercepted another aid delegation to the besieged port city of Mariupol.
Ukraine’s state electricity company, Energoatom, said the withdrawal at Chornobyl came after soldiers received “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches in the forest in a restricted area around the closed plant. door. But there is no independent confirmation of that.
The exchange of control comes amid growing signs that the Kremlin is using negotiations on de-escalation in Ukraine as a cover to regroup, resupply and redeploy. force for an intensified offensive in the eastern part of the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that Russia’s withdrawal from the north and center of the country is just a military tactic aimed at building up forces for new powerful attacks in the southeast. A new round of talks between the countries is scheduled for Friday, five weeks after a conflict that has left thousands dead and 4 million Ukrainians displaced.
“We know their intentions,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address to the nation. “We know they’re moving away from the areas where we hit them to focus on other, very important areas where it could be difficult for us.”
“There will be battles ahead,” he added.
Meanwhile in Mariupol, Russian forces intercepted a convoy of 45 buses trying to evacuate people after the Russian military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area. According to the Ukrainian government, only 631 people can get out of the city by private car.
Russian forces also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies on a dozen buses trying to reach Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The city has been the site of some of the worst trauma of war. Tens of thousands of people have managed to get out in the past few weeks using humanitarian corridors, reducing the population from 430,000 before the war to an estimated 100,000 last week, but other relief efforts have been hampered by Russia’s constant attacks.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been informed by Ukraine that Russian forces at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster had transferred control of it in writing to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainian government agency responsible for the exclusion zone said the last of Russia’s troops had left early Friday.
Energoatom did not give details about the condition of the soldiers it said were radioactive and did not say how many were affected. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin and the IAEA said it could not confirm reports of the Russian military receiving high doses. It said they were looking for more information.
Russian forces seized the Chornobyl site during the opening stages of the 24 February invasion, raising fears that they would cause damage or disruption that could release radiation. The site’s workforce oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and concrete-buried wreckage of the reactor that exploded in 1986.
Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said it “seems unlikely” that a large number of troops would develop serious radiation sickness, but Can’t know for sure without more details.
He said contaminated material may have been buried or covered with fresh topsoil during the Chornobyl cleanup, and that some soldiers may have been exposed to radiation “hot spots” while digging. Others may assume they are also at risk, he said.
Earlier this week, the Russians said they would significantly reduce military activities in the areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to strengthen trust between the two sides and support negotiations.
But on the outskirts of Kyiv, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk on Thursday said on social media that Russian forces had shelled Irpin and Makariv and there were battles around Hostomel. According to Pavliuk, Ukrainian forces counter-attacked and some Russian troops retreated around the eastern suburb of Brovary.
At a Ukrainian military checkpoint outside the capital Kyiv, soldiers and officers said they did not believe Russian forces had abandoned the capital.
“What does it mean, significantly shrinking combat operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions?” Brig asked. General Valeriy Embakov. “Does it mean there will be 100 missiles instead of 200 being launched at Kyiv or something?”
Chernihiv also plays offensively. Ukraine’s Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova said at least one person was killed and four injured in the shelling of a humanitarian bus convoy to Chernihiv to evacuate people whose food, water and other resources had been cut off. other offers.
In another development, Ukraine said that Russian artillery had struck in and around the city of Kharkiv, in the northeastern part of the country.
Ukraine’s emergency services also said the death toll had risen to 20 in a Russian missile attack Tuesday on a government administrative building in the southern city of Mykolaiv. .
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said intelligence indicates Russia is not downsizing its military operations in Ukraine but is instead trying to regroup, resupply forces and consolidate the offensive in the Donbas.
“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Stoltenberg said. At the same time, he said, pressure is mounting on Kyiv and other cities, and “we can expect additional offensive actions to cause even more suffering.”
The Donbas is a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. Over the past few days, the Kremlin has been, in what appeared to be a turnaround. in the war objective, stating that their “main objective” now is to gain control of the Donbas, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.
According to Russian state news agencies, the top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, has ordered the creation of a city government to rival Mariupol, indicating that Russia intends to capture and manage the city.
With talks set to resume between Ukraine and Russia via video, there seems to be little confidence that the two sides will resolve the conflict any time soon.
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the conditions are not yet “ripe” for a ceasefire and he is not ready for a meeting with Zelenskyy until negotiators do more work, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said. after a phone conversation with the Russian leader.
As Western officials search for clues about Russia’s next move, a top British intelligence official says demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to carry out orders and vandalizing equipment. their own and accidentally shot down their own plane.
US intelligence officials have concluded that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how bad the war is because they are afraid to tell him the truth.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the US was wrong and that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon had real information about what was happening in the Kremlin”.
Karmanau reports from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.