Russian troops left the heavily contaminated Chernobyl nuclear site early Friday after returning control to the Ukrainians, authorities said, as eastern parts of the country were braced for renewed attacks and Russians blocked another aid mission to the besieged port city of Mariupol.
Ukraine’s state power company, Energoatom, said the pull-out at Chernobyl came after soldiers received “significant doses” of radiation from digging trenches in the forest in the exclusion zone around the closed plant, although there was no independent confirmation of that.
The exchange of control happened amid growing indications the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation in Ukraine as cover to regroup, resupply its forces and redeploy them for a stepped-up offensive in the eastern part of the country.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russian withdrawals from the north and centre of the country were just a military tactic to build up forces for new powerful attacks in the south east.Destroyed Russian armoured vehicles on the outskirts of Kyiv (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
A new round of talks between the countries was scheduled on Friday, five weeks into a conflict that has left thousands dead and driven four million Ukrainians from the country.
“We know their intentions,” Mr Zelensky said in his nightly video address to the country.
“We know that they are moving away from those areas where we hit them in order to focus on other, very important ones where it may be difficult for us.”
“There will be battles ahead,” he added.
Following a plea from Mr Zelensky when he addressed the Australian parliament on Thursday, prime minister Scott Morrison said that his country would send mine-resistant armoured personnel carriers to Ukraine.
He said the four-wheel drive “Bushmaster” vehicles, specifically requested by Mr Zelensky, would be flown in to Europe but did not say how many would be delivered or when. Ukrainian soldiers pass a destroyed Russian tank on the outskirts of Kyiv (Rodrigo Abd/AP)
“We’re not just sending our prayers, we are sending our guns, we’re sending our munitions, we’re sending our humanitarian aid, we’re sending all of this, our body armor, all of these things and we’re going to be sending our armored vehicles, our Bushmasters, as well,” Morrison said.
In the encircled strategic port city of Mariupol, Russian forces blocked a convoy of 45 buses attempting to evacuate people after the Russian military agreed to a limited ceasefire.
Only 631 people were able to get out of the city in private cars, according to the Ukrainian government.
Russian forces also seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies in a dozen buses that were trying to make it to Mariupol, deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The city has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war.
Tens of thousands have managed to get out in the past few weeks by way of humanitarian corridors, reducing the population from a pre-war 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 by last week, but other relief efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.Civilians hide in the basement of a church in the town of Bashtanka, Mykolaiv district, Ukraine (Petros Giannakouris/AP)
The International Atomic Energy Agency said it had been informed by Ukraine that the Russian forces at the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster had transferred control of it in writing to the Ukrainians.
The last Russian troops left Chernobyl early Friday, the Ukrainian government agency responsible for the exclusion zone said.
Energoatom gave no details on the condition of the soldiers it said were exposed to radiation and did not say how many were affected.
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin, and the IAEA said it had not been able to confirm the reports of Russian troops receiving high doses.
Russian forces seized the Chernobyl site in the opening stages of the invasion, raising fears that they would cause damage or disruption that could spread radiation.
The workforce at the site oversees the safe storage of spent fuel rods and the concrete-entombed ruins of the reactor that exploded in 1986.
Early this week, the Russians said they would significantly scale back military operations in areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv to increase trust between the two sides and help negotiations.
But in the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media Thursday that Russian forces shelled Irpin and Makariv and that there were battles around Hostomel.
Mr Pavliuk said there were Ukrainian counterattacks and some Russian withdrawals around the suburb of Brovary to the east.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said intelligence indicates Russia is not scaling back its military operations in Ukraine but is instead trying to regroup, resupply its forces and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas.
“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Mr Stoltenberg said. At the same time, he said, pressure is being kept up on Kyiv and other cities, and “we can expect additional offensive actions bringing even more suffering”.
The Donbas is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.
In the past few days, the Kremlin, in a seeming shift in its war aims, said that its “main goal” now is gaining control of the Donbas, which consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.
The top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, issued an order to set up a rival city government for Mariupol, according to Russian state news agencies, in a sign of Russian intent to hold and administer the city.
With talks set to resume between Ukraine and Russia via video, there seemed little faith that the two sides would resolve the conflict any time soon.
Russian president Vladimir Putin said that conditions were not yet “ripe” for a ceasefire and that he was not ready for a meeting with Mr Zelensky until negotiators do more work, Italian prime minister Mario Draghi said after a telephone conversation with the Russian leader.