Russian forces take Chernobyl workers’ town; fighting in centre of Mariupol

Pro-Russian troops drive vehicles past locals in the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 24, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

MARIUPOL/LVIV (REUTERS) - Russian forces have taken control of a town where workers at the defunct Chernobyl nuclear plant live, the governor of Kyiv region said on Saturday (March 26), and fighting was reported in the streets of the besieged southern port of Mariupol.

After more than four weeks of conflict, Russia has failed to seize any major Ukrainian city and on Friday, Moscow signalled it was scaling back its military ambitions to focus on territory claimed by Russian-backed separatists in the east.

However, intense fighting was reported in a number of places on Saturday, suggesting there would be no swift let-up in the conflict, which has killed thousands of people, sent some 3.7 million abroad and driven more than half of Ukraine's children from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Russian troops seized the town of Slavutych, which is close to the border with Belarus and is where workers at the Chernobyl plant live, the governor of Kyiv region, Mr Oleksandr Pavlyuk, said.

Three people were killed, Interfax Ukraine news agency quoted the local mayor as saying.

"Slavutych has been under occupation since today. We steadfastly defended our city... three deaths have been confirmed so far,” Interfax quoted mayor Yuri Fomichev as saying in a Facebook post.

The report did not give details on the casualties.

Mr Pavlyuk said some residents had unfurled a large Ukrainian flag and shouted “Glory to Ukraine” in protest.  

He also said the Russians fired into the air to disperse the pro-Ukraine protest in the centre of the town and had thrown stun grenades into the crowd.

He added that the soldiers had occupied the hospital. 

Slavutych sits just outside the so-called exclusion zone around Chernobyl - which in 1986 was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster - where Ukrainian staff have continued to work even after the plant itself was seized by Russian forces soon after the start of the Feb 24 invasion.

Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the town had become a new hot spot of the war. “The inhabitants are carrying out heroic civil resistance to the invader,” he said in a televised address, referring to Saturday’s protest.

On the other side of the country, in Mariupol, Mayor Vadym Boichenko said the situation in the encircled city remained critical, with street fighting taking place in the centre.

The city has been devastated by weeks of Russian fire.

Remote video URL

In an address on Saturday to Qatar's Doha Forum, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky compared the destruction of Mariupol to the destruction inflicted on the Syrian city of Aleppo by combined Syrian and Russian forces in the civil war.

"They are destroying our ports," Mr Zelensky said, warning of dire consequence if his country - one of the world's major grains producers - could not export its foodstuffs.

"The absence of exports from Ukraine will deal a blow to countries worldwide."

Speaking via video link, he also called on energy producing countries to increase their output so that Russia cannot use its massive oil and gas wealth to "blackmail" other nations.

Biden in Poland 

US President Joe Biden saw Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Saturday in the Polish capital Warsaw in his first face-to-face meeting with top Ukrainian officials since the start of the war.  

Mr Biden’s visit to Poland was his final stop on a trip to Europe that has underscored his opposition to the Russian invasion, his solidarity with Ukraine and his determination to work closely with Western allies to confront the crisis.  

He was set to make a major address later in the day to “hold Russia accountable for its brutal war, and defend a future that is rooted in democratic principles”, the White House said. 

Mr Zelensky late on Friday pushed for further talks with Moscow after the Russian Defence Ministry said a first phase of its operation was mostly complete and that it would now focus on the Donbass region bordering Russia, which has pro-Moscow separatist enclaves.

Breakaway Russian-backed forces have been fighting Ukrainian forces in Donbass since 2014.

Reframing Russia's goals may make it easier for President Vladimir Putin to claim a face-saving victory, analysts said.

Moscow has until now said its goals for what it calls its "special military operation" include demilitarising and "denazifying" its neighbour. Ukraine and its Western allies have called that a baseless pretext for an unprovoked invasion.

The United Nations has confirmed 1,081 civilian deaths and 1,707 injuries in Ukraine since the invasion but says the real toll is likely higher. Some 136 children have been killed so far during the invasion, Ukraine's prosecutor-general office said on Saturday.

Russia's Defence Ministry said 1,351 Russian soldiers had been killed and 3,825 wounded, the Interfax news agency reported on Friday. Ukraine says 15,000 Russian soldiers have died.

Reuters could not independently verify the claims.

Laid waste

Footage from Mariupol, home to 400,000 people before the war, showed destroyed buildings, burnt out vehicles and shell-shocked survivors venturing out for water and provisions.

Residents have buried victims in makeshift graves as the ground thaws.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said an agreement had been reached to set up 10 humanitarian corridors on Saturday to evacuate civilians from front-line hot spots.

Speaking on national television, she said civilians trying to leave Mariupol would have to travel by private cars as Russian forces were not letting buses through their checkpoints.

Reuters could not independently verify this information.

Remote video URL

More than 100,000 people still need to be evacuated from the Mariupol, Ms Vereshchuk said.

To the north, battle lines near the capital Kyiv have been frozen for weeks with two main Russian armoured columns stuck northwest and east of the city.

A British intelligence report on Saturday said Russian forces were relying on indiscriminate air and artillery bombardments rather than risk large-scale ground operations.

"It is likely Russia will continue to use its heavy firepower on urban areas as it looks to limit its own already considerable losses, at the cost of further civilian casualties," the latest British assessment said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.