Feb. 24 (UPI) — Russian military forces captured the now-abandoned nuclear power plant in Chernobyl Thursday, Ukrainian officials said.
Russian troops have now captured the entire area around the facility, which includes the country’s repository for nuclear waste from other power plants.
“The Chernobyl zone — the exclusion zone — and all installations of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant have been taken under control of Russian armed groups,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said during a televised statement late Thursday, the Washington Post reported.
Chernobyl was the site of the world’s largest nuclear disaster in 1986, after one of the plant’s reactors melted down.
This comes after on-the-ground fighting between Russian soldiers and Ukrainian National Guard forces, which are routinely stationed around the plant as a safety measure.
Earlier Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted that Russian forces were trying to seize the Chernobyl plant.
“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Zelenskyy tweeted.
“This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”
Russian forces continue to push toward the Ukrainian capitol of Kyiv. Video on social media appears to show Russian military helicopters on the way to capturing the Hostomel Airport, an international cargo airport and testing facility in a northwestern suburb of Kyiv.
“Twenty KA-52 and Mi-8 helicopters of the Russian Federation landed at the Gostomel airfield, fighting is ongoing. The enemy continues aggressive actions along the entire common border line,” tweeted former Zelenskyy spokesperson Iuliia Mendel.
An unconfirmed number of Russian helicopters were shot down during the fight for the airfield, CNN reported.
In response to the ongoing military campaign, President Joe Biden announced a further “severe” round of sanctions Thursday against Russia, which now target all of its major banks.
“As a result of Putin’s war of choice, Russia will face immediate and intense pressure on its economy, and massive costs from its isolation from the global financial system, global trade, and cutting-edge technology,” Biden said from the White House.
“This includes cutting off Russia’s largest bank from the U.S. financial system — a significant blow to its ability to function and process global trade. It also includes full blocking sanctions on Russia’s second largest bank — freezing any of its assets touching the U.S. financial system. Russia’s ability to access global markets, attract investment, and utilize the U.S. dollar will be devastated.”
Biden said sanctioning Putin personally remains an option.
There are also fears the fighting could have environmental consequences for larger parts of Europe.
Al Jazeera reported that a Russian explosive hit a radioactive waste repository at Chernobyl, but could not immediately corroborate the account.
Radiation has continued to leak from the site since the 1986 meltdown, which is the reason for the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The 1,000-square-mile zone of forest surrounding the plant lies between the Belarus-Ukraine border and Kyiv.