All the Russian troops that occupied the Chernobyl nuclear power station have now left the site, officials in Kyiv said, as heavy fighting continues to rage on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital and other fronts.
“There are no longer any outsiders on the territory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” Ukraine’s state agency in charge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Energoatom, said on Facebook.
The UN nuclear watchdog, IAEA, also confirmed that it had been informed by Ukraine that Russian forces handed control of the power plant and “moved convoys of troops”.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities.
Though Russian forces seized control of Chernobyl soon after Moscow’s February 24 invasion, the plant’s Ukrainian staff continued to oversee the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel and to supervise the concrete-encased remains of the reactor that exploded in 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident.
#Ukraine informed IAEA today that Russian forces that had been in control of #Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant since 24 Feb have, in writing, transferred control of the NPP to Ukrainian personnel and moved convoys of troops. https://t.co/DkBXEJpDu8 pic.twitter.com/guITblxwXP
— IAEA – International Atomic Energy Agency (@iaeaorg) March 31, 2022
Earlier on Thursday, Energoatom said those workers had flagged that Russian forces were planning to leave the territory.
“The information is confirmed that the occupiers, who seized the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and other facilities in the exclusion zone, have set off in two columns towards the Ukrainian border with the Republic of Belarus,” it said in a statement.
Energoatom said Russian soldiers got “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches at the highly contaminated site. The troops “panicked at the first sign of illness,” which “showed up very quickly,” and began to prepare to leave, it added.
In a separate online post, Energoatom said the Russian side had formally agreed to hand back to Ukraine the responsibility for protecting Chernobyl.
It shared the scan of a document setting out such an arrangement and signed by individuals it identified as a senior staff member at Chernobyl, the Russian military official tasked with guarding Chernobyl, and others.
The authenticity of the document could not immediately be verified. There was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities, who have denied that its forces have put nuclear facilities in Ukraine at risk.
Ukraine has repeatedly expressed safety concerns about Chernobyl and demanded the withdrawal of Russian troops, whose presence prevented the rotation of the plant’s personnel for a time.
Earlier on Thursday, the head of Energoatom urged the UN nuclear watchdog to help ensure Russian nuclear officials do not interfere in the operation of Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which is also occupied by Russian soldiers.
The pullout came amid continued fighting and indications that the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation as cover while regrouping and resupplying its forces, and redeploying them for a stepped-up offensive in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine is seeing “a buildup of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas, and we are preparing for that”.
Meanwhile, a convoy of buses headed to Mariupol in another bid to evacuate people from the besieged port city, after the Russian military agreed to a limited ceasefire in the area. A new round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting was scheduled for Friday.
The Red Cross said its teams were headed for Mariupol with medical supplies and other relief, and hoped to take civilians out of the beleaguered city.
Tens of thousands have managed to get out in the past few weeks by way of humanitarian corridors, reducing the city’s population from a pre-war 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 as of last week, but other efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.
At the same time, Russian forces shelled Kyiv suburbs, two days after the Kremlin announced it would significantly scale back operations near both the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations”.
Despite the fighting raging in those areas, the Russian military said it committed to a ceasefire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses would be sent to collect civilians who have suffered some of the worst privations of the war.