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Russia shells Europe's largest nuclear plant, starting fire

by The Associated Press | March 3, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.
A woman sits by the window of a Lviv-bound train, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office says a second round of talks with Russia aimed at stopping the fighting that has sent more than 1 million people fleeing over Ukraine's borders, has begun in neighboring Belarus, but the two sides appeared to have little common ground. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

KYIV, Ukraine -- Russian forces pressed their attack on a crucial energy-producing Ukrainian city by shelling Europe's largest nuclear plant early Friday, sparking a fire and raising fears that radiation could leak from the damaged power station.

The assault on the eastern city of Enerhodar and its Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant came as the invasion entered its second week with Russian forces gaining ground in their bid to cut off the country from the sea. Elsewhere, another round of talks between the two sides yielded a tentative agreement to set up safe corridors inside Ukraine to evacuate citizens and deliver humanitarian aid.

Nuclear plant spokesman Andriy Tuz told Ukrainian television that shells were falling directly on the facility and had set fire to one of its six reactors. That reactor is under renovation and not operating, but there is nuclear fuel inside, he said.

Firefighters cannot get near the flames because they are being shot at, he said, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted a plea to the Russians to stop the assault and allow fire teams inside.

"We demand that they stop the heavy weapons fire," Tuz said in a video statement. "There is a real threat of nuclear danger in the biggest atomic energy station in Europe."

The attack renewed fears that the invasion could result in damage to one of Ukraine's 15 nuclear reactors and trigger another emergency like the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the world's worst nuclear disaster, which happened about 110 kilometers (65 miles) north of the capital.

The American Nuclear Society condemned the attack but said the latest radiation levels remained within natural background levels.

"The real threat to Ukrainian lives continues to be the violent invasion and bombing of their country," the group said in a statement from President Steven Nesbit and Executive Director and CEO Craig Piercy.

The plant's reactor is a different type than the one used at Chernobyl, and there should be little risk if the containment vessel is not damaged and outside power can be restored, said Jon B. Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council and former special adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden.

"Everyone needs to take a step back and not jump to conclusions," Wolfsthal, now a senior adviser at Global Zero, said on Twitter.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was in contact with authorities in Ukraine. The agency's director general, Mariano Grossi, urged military forces to refrain from violence near the plant.

The mayor of Enerhodar said earlier that Ukrainian forces were battling Russian troops on the city's outskirts. Video showed flames and black smoke rising above the city of more than 50,000, with people streaming past wrecked cars, just a day after the U.N. atomic watchdog agency expressed grave concern that the fighting could cause accidental damage to Ukraine's 15 nuclear reactors.

The Ukrainian state atomic energy company reported that a Russian military column was heading toward the nuclear plant. Loud shots and rocket fire were heard late Thursday.

"Many young men in athletic clothes and armed with Kalashnikovs have come into the city. They are breaking down doors and trying to get into the apartments of local residents," the statement from Energoatom said.

Later, a live streamed security camera linked from the homepage of the Zaporizhzhia plant showed what appeared to be armored vehicles rolling into the facility's parking lot and shining spotlights on the building where the camera was mounted.

There were then what appeared to be bright muzzle flashes from vehicles, followed by nearly simultaneous explosions in the surrounding buildings. Smoke then rose into the frame and drifted away.

While the huge Russian armored column threatening Kyiv appeared bogged down outside the capital, Vladimir Putin's forces have brought their superior firepower to bear over the past few days, launching hundreds of missiles and artillery attacks on cities and other sites around the country and making significant gains in the south.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal called on the West to close the skies over the country's nuclear plants as fighting intensified. "It is a question of the security of the whole world!" he said in a statement.

The U.S. and NATO allies have ruled out creating a no-fly zone since the move would pit Russian and Western military forces against each other.

The Russians announced the capture of the southern city of Kherson, a vital Black Sea port of 280,000, and local Ukrainian officials confirmed the takeover of the government headquarters there, making it the first major city to fall since the invasion began a week ago.

Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of another strategic port, Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. The battles have knocked out the city's electricity, heat and water systems, as well as most phone service, officials said. Food deliveries to the city were also cut.

Associated Press video from the port city shows the assault lighting up the darkening sky above largely deserted streets and medical teams treating civilians, including one inside a clinic who appeared to be a child. Doctors were unable to save the person.

Severing Ukraine's access to the Black and Azov seas would deal a crippling blow to its economy and allow Russia to build a land corridor to Crimea, seized by Moscow in 2014.

Overall, the outnumbered, outgunned Ukrainians have put up stiff resistance, staving off the swift victory that Russia appeared to have expected. But a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia's seizure of Crimea gave it a logistical advantage in that part of the country, with shorter supply lines that smoothed the offensive there.

Ukrainian leaders called on the people to defend their homeland by cutting down trees, erecting barricades in the cities and attacking enemy columns from the rear. In recent days, authorities have issued weapons to civilians and taught them how to make Molotov cocktails.

"Total resistance. ... This is our Ukrainian trump card, and this is what we can do best in the world," Oleksiy Arestovich, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a video message, recalling guerrilla actions in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during World War II.

The second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations was held in neighboring Belarus. But the two sides appeared far apart going into the meeting, and Putin warned Ukraine that it must quickly accept the Kremlin's demand for its "demilitarization" and declare itself neutral, renouncing its bid to join NATO.

Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron he was determined to press on with his attack "until the end," according to Macron's office.

The two sides said that they tentatively agreed to allow cease-fires in areas designated safe corridors, and that they would seek to work out the necessary details quickly. A Zelenskyy adviser also said a third round of talks will be held early next week.

Despite a profusion of evidence of civilian casualties and destruction of property by the Russian military, Putin decried what he called an "anti-Russian disinformation campaign" and insisted that Moscow uses "only precision weapons to exclusively destroy military infrastructure."

Putin claimed that the Russian military had already offered safe corridors for civilians to flee, but he asserted without evidence that Ukrainian "neo-Nazis" were preventing people from leaving and were using them as human shields.

He also hailed Russian soldiers as heroes in a video call with members of Russia's Security Council, and ordered additional payments to families of men killed or wounded.

A top Russian officer, Maj. Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky, commander of an airborne division, was killed in the fighting earlier this week, an officers organization in Russia reported.

The Pentagon set up a direct communication link to Russia's Ministry of Defense earlier this week to avoid the possibility of a miscalculation sparking conflict between Moscow and Washington, according to a U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the link had not been announced.

The fighting has sent more than 1 million people fleeing Ukraine, according to the U.N., which fears those refugee numbers could skyrocket.

The immense Russian column of hundreds of tanks and other vehicles still appeared to be stalled roughly 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Kyiv and had made no real progress in days, amid fuel and food shortages, according to U.S. authorities.

photo Stanislav, 40, says goodbye to his son David, 2, and his wife Anna, 35, on a train to Lviv at the Kyiv station, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3. 2022. Stanislav is staying to fight while his family is leaving the country to seek refuge in a neighbouring country. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
photo Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a damaged city center after a Russian air raid in Chernigiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have escalated their attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine's leader called a blatant campaign of terror. (AP Photo/Dmytro Kumaka)
photo Ukrainians cover the sculptures of the Latin Cathedral in Lviv, western Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has forced more than a million people to flee their homeland in just a week. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
photo Serhii, father of teenager Iliya, cries on his son's lifeless body lying on a stretcher at a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
photo The remains of a Russian missile lies on the ground in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. Russia has launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine, hitting cities and bases with airstrikes or shelling. (AP Photo/Andriy Dubchak)
photo The lifeless body of teenager Ilya, fatally wounded by shelling, Iies on a stretcher at a maternity hospital converted into a medical ward in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Russian forces have seized a strategic Ukrainian seaport and besieged another. Those moves are part of efforts to cut the country off from its coastline even as Moscow said Thursday it was ready for talks to end the fighting. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
photo Firefighters hose down a burning building after bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have seized a strategic Ukrainian seaport and besieged another. Those moves are part of efforts to cut the country off from its coastline even as Moscow said Thursday it was ready for talks to end the fighting. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
photo In this image taken from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
photo Minister of Defense of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov, left, the Head of the Ukrainian Servant of the People faction Davyd Arakhamia, second left, Adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Mykhailo Podoliak, third left, Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the Russian State Duma's International Affairs Committee, fourth right, Russian Presidential Aide and the head of the Russian delegation Vladimir Medinsky, third right behind Fomin, Deputy Minister of Defense Alexander Fomin, second right, and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, greet each other prior to the Russian-Ukrainian talks in the Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park, close to the Polish-Belarusian border, northward from Brest, Belarus, Thursday, March 3, 2022. (Maxim Guchek/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)

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