The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
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Russians seize nuclear power plant amid heavy bombardment of Ukraine

Authorities said firefighters extinguished the fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant and that there had been no release of radioactive material.

Russian forces pressed their offensive against key Ukrainian cities Friday in a heavy bombing and shelling campaign that has led to an unfolding humanitarian disaster, spurred an astonishing exodus of people and raised fears of a wider calamity after Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant was set ablaze.

Authorities said Friday morning that local firefighters had extinguished the fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex in the southeastern city of Enerhodar and that there had been no release of radioactive material. The facility has been seized by Russian forces, officials said, but its local staff continues to operate the plant and is inspecting it for damage.

None of the site’s six reactors — only one of which was in use, at about 60% capacity — was damaged, said Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Geneva.

But the strike on the plant, which sparked immediate concern over a Chernobyl-like disaster, with radioactive clouds drifting over the rest of Europe, demonstrated anew the war’s potential for terrifying effects far outside Ukraine’s borders. Norway’s leader called the shelling of Zaporizhzhia “in line with madness.”

Enerhoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear plant operator, said that three Ukrainian soldiers were killed and two were injured in the strike.

In an emotional video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for a stop to the shelling of Zaporizhzhia and for a Western-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine to forestall any other strikes on sensitive infrastructure. Ukraine is home to four nuclear power plants.

“Only urgent action by Europe can stop the Russian troops,” said Zelensky, who fielded a flurry of worried calls from President Joe Biden and other world leaders. “Do not allow the death of Europe from a catastrophe at a nuclear power station.”

His comments came as Russian troops strengthened their grip on Ukraine’s south in a bid to choke off access to the Black and Azov seas and establish control over a swath of land pushing up against Moldova and NATO member Romania to the west. The city of Kherson has fallen, and the strategic port of Mariupol has come under constant shelling, with hundreds of residents feared dead, basic services disrupted and supplies cut off.

The United Nations says 1 million people have fled Ukraine — more than 2% of the country’s population. Thousands of refugees are arriving by the hour in neighboring Poland and Hungary.

On Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to investigate allegations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, following a similar move by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched what he called a “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24, denies that his troops have targeted civilians. Instead, the Kremlin has accused Ukrainian forces of using residents as human shields.

Russian officials also blamed the fire at Zaporizhzhia on local saboteurs, a claim that Ukraine’s energy minister scoffed at.

“Could you imagine this craziness — I mean, to fire against our [own nuclear] stations?” German Galushchenko told Sky News. “That’s a typical play from Russia.”

Soldiers check vehicles at a checkpoint in Kyiv
Ukrainian soldiers examine vehicles at a checkpoint on a main road entering Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, on Wednesday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the attack on Zaporizhzhia showed “the recklessness of this war.” At the same time, he said the transatlantic alliance would not deploy planes over Ukrainian airspace to establish a no-fly zone or put troops on the ground in Ukraine, in order to avoid a greater confrontation with Moscow.

“We call on President Putin to stop this war immediately, withdraw all his forces from Ukraine without conditions and engage in genuine diplomacy now,” Stoltenberg said after a meeting of member nations’ foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

But the possibility of such a pullback is remote. After a 90-minute call between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, an aide to Macron warned that the Russian leader insisted he would see the invasion through to the end.

“The days to come are likely to be worse, with more death, more suffering and more destruction as Russian armed forces bring in heavier weaponry and continue their attacks across the country,” Stoltenberg said.

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A small gleam of hope emerged after talks Thursday between Russian and Ukrainian representatives, who tentatively agreed on the setup of specially designated corridors where temporary cease-fires would be called and residents could escape the fighting safely.

In the capital, Kyiv, traffic stretched for miles Friday morning on the city’s southern outskirts as people tried to leave before an expected full-scale Russian onslaught. For days, a column of Russian armored vehicles 40 miles long has sat north of Kyiv, heralding a massive incursion or an attempted blockade, but its progress has been slow, beset by logistical missteps, Western intelligence officials say.

Fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces has also helped keep the Russians at bay in Kyiv and other major population centers, such as Kharkiv in the northeast, the country’s second-most populous city, which remains under assault. On Friday, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the Ukrainian navy had destroyed its own flagship, which was undergoing repairs, to prevent it from being seized and used by Russian forces.

The commander of the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny took the decision to flood the ship, Reznikov said on Facebook, adding: “It is hard to imagine a more difficult decision for a courageous soldier and crew.”

Zelensky said Friday that 9,200 Russian troops have been killed since the invasion began, but the figure could not be independently verified. Ukraine’s State Emergency Service has said more than 2,000 Ukrainian civilians have died.

In a rare admission of casualties, the Kremlin earlier this week acknowledged the deaths of about 500 Russian soldiers. But Putin has told his people that the war is going according to plan, and the government’s grip on the media has meant that few Russians have seen reports or footage of the death and destruction being visited on Ukraine or their own forces.

A number of independent news outlets have closed down in recent days, and the remaining Russian media have parroted the official line that the “special military operation” has mostly been confined to eastern Ukraine, as protection for the large population of Russian speakers there, and that the overall goal is to disarm and “de-Nazify” Ukraine’s leadership, even though Zelensky is Jewish.

On Friday, Russian news agencies reported that the lower house of the Russian parliament had approved a bill to make the spreading of “fake” information about the invasion punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Bulos reported from Kyiv and Chu from London.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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