Russian troops occupying the former nuclear power plant at Chernobyl have left, the plant’s staff say.
According to Ukraine’s state nuclear company Energoatom, staff at the plant said there are currently no “outsiders” at the site.
Earlier, it said some Russian forces had set off towards the Belarusian border, leaving a small group behind. The announcement appears to confirm reports by senior US defence officials on Wednesday of a withdrawal.
Russian troops seized Chernobyl at the beginning of their invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.
“This morning, the invaders announced their intentions to leave the Chernobyl nuclear power plant,” Energoatom said in a statement on Thursday. The company later accused the Russian military of abducting members of the Ukrainian National Guard held captive since the start of the war. Energoatom sourced its information to workers at the plant and did not give numbers.
It also confirmed reports that Russian troops had dug trenches in the most contaminated part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, receiving “significant doses” of radiation. There are unconfirmed reports that some are being treated in Belarus. Reuters news agency quoted workers at the plant as saying some of the soldiers had no idea they were in a radiation zone.
The Russian military, however, said that after capturing the plant radiation levels at the plant itself had stayed within a normal range. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a statement that it was unable to confirm the reports.
The head of Ukraine’s agency in charge of the exclusion zone, Yevhen Kramarenko, said that radiation levels appeared to be normal and there was no indication of significant damage. However, as the sensors for detecting radiation levels were not working, staff needed to check the facilities, he added.
The head of the IAEA said it was in close consultations with Ukrainian authorities on sending a mission to the Chernobyl plant in the next few days. While “Chernobyl” is a word that evokes apocalypse, nuclear experts stressed throughout this saga that there was no risk of “another Chernobyl”.
In recent days Russia has said it will scale down its operations in northern Ukraine around the capital Kyiv and focus its forces on the eastern Donbas region. Chernobyl is located north of Kyiv. But on Thursday Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Moscow was repositioning rather than withdrawing in order to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in Donbas.
“At the same time, Russia maintains pressure on Kyiv and other cities. So we can expect additional offensive actions, bringing even more suffering,” he said. There was no change in Russia’s objective to pursue a military outcome, he added.
The occupation of the Chernobyl site since 24 February, the day of the invasion, has been dodged with concerns bout power outages and problems for the staff, many of whom were trapped there for weeks and could not get home.
Although no longer a working power station, Chernobyl was never fully abandoned and still requires constant management. It is the site of what is considered to be the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
The Russian withdrawal follows an announcement several days ago by the mayor of Slavutych, a nearby town housing workers at the plant, that Russian troops had left the town.