(Reuters) – Some Russian troops were still in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear power station on Friday morning, a day after ending their occupation of the plant itself, a Ukrainian official said.
Russian forces occupied the defunct power station north of Kyiv soon after invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 but Ukraine’s state nuclear energy company, Energoatom, said on Thursday they had left the plant and were heading towards the border with Belarus.
“Russians were seen in the exclusion zone this morning,” Yevhen Kramarenko, who heads the agency in charge of the exclusion zone, said in televised comments on Friday.
He did not say what the troops were doing or where they might be headed. He added that no Russian troops had been seen on the territory of the decommissioned nuclear power plant.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities on the reported withdrawal the Chernobyl plant, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
Ukraine’s General Staff of the Armed Forces said in their late Friday military update that several units of Russian forces have been withdrawn from the Chernobyl district to settlements on the territory of Belarus.
It did not say whether there were any Russian forces left in the Chernobyl district.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that with renewed access to Chernobyl, Ukraine would work with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to establish what Russian troops did while in control of the site, which he warned had exposed them to dangerous levels of radiation.
“Russia behaved irresponsibly in Chernobyl on all accounts, from not allowing personnel of the station to perform their functions to digging trenches in the contaminated areas,” Kuleba said on Friday.
He said the Russian government must “answer to the mothers, the sister, the wives of those soldiers – why did they force them to put their lives at risk.”
The exclusion zone was established because of high radiation levels in the area after a nuclear reactor exploded at the plant in April 1986.
Energoatom suggested on Thursday that the Russian forces had left because of concerns about radiation levels and that they had taken with them an unspecified number of members of Ukraine’s National Guard who had been held captive since Feb. 24. The information could not immediately be verified.
Russian troops had built fortifications including trenches in the so-called Red Forest, the most radioactively contaminated part of the zone around Chernobyl, Energoatom said.
The plant’s Ukrainian staff continued to oversee the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel at Chernobyl while it was occupied by Russian forces, and also supervised the concrete-encased remains of the reactor that exploded in 1986.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, David Ljunggren and Lidia Kelly; Writing by Alessandra Prentice and Timothy Heritage; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool)