Ukraine reclaims key military airport; Russian troops seize Chernobyl

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Feb. 24 (UPI) — Ukrainian officials on Thursday said they reclaimed a key military airport as Russian special forces captured locations in the country including the Chernobyl power plant.

The Ukrainian Parliament’s official Telegram account said Antonov Airport in Hostomel was “fully under the control” of Ukrainian troops, which Deputy Interior Minister Anton Geraschenko called “the first big victory,” ABC News reported.

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Video posted on social media earlier in the day appeared to show Russian military helicopters on the way to capturing 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 Zelensky spokesperson Iuliia Mendel.

An unconfirmed number of Russian helicopters were shot down during the fight for the airfield, CNN reported.

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Earlier, Ukrainian officials said Russian military forces captured the entire area around the now-abandoned nuclear plant in Chernobyl, 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.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States was “outraged” citing “credible reports” that Russian soldiers are holding civilian staff of the power plant hostage,.

“This unlawful and dangerous hostage taking, which could upend the routine civil service efforts required to maintain and protect the nuclear waste facilities, is so obviously incredibly alarming and greatly concerning. We condemn it and we request their release.”

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 Zelensky tweeted that Russian forces were trying to seize the Chernobyl plant.

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“Our defenders are giving their lives so that the tragedy of 1986 will not be repeated,” Zelensky tweeted.

“This is a declaration of war against the whole of Europe.”

Diplomat Olexander Scherba said that Zelensky had announced 137 fatalities including both members of the military and civilians.

Zelensky issued a declaration that Ukrainian males aged 18-60 were banned from leaving the country “in order to ensure the defense of the state, maintaining combat and mobilization readiness of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations.”

“Mobilization shall be carried out within 90 days from the date of entry into force of this decree,” the announcement said.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Resnikov issued a statement Thursday saying the country was repelling the invasion by Russia but warned that additional attacks may be on the horizon.

“The Kremlin is planning a new wave of attacks, including using paratroopers, but our army is ready to meet them,” Resnikov said.

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He added the situation in the south remains “difficult” and heavy fighting took place in the Sumsky region north of Kyiv, while praising international sanctions against Russia.

“Tomorrow, Russia will learn the price of the Putinist insanity. We are on our soil and we will resist. And we will definitely win,” Resnikov said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said he was “convinced” that Russia would move to overthrow the Ukrainian government.

“You don’t need intelligence to tell you that that’s exactly what President Putin wants. He has made clear he’d like to reconstitute the Soviet Empire, short of that he’d like to reassert a sphere of influence around the neighboring countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc” he said.

Blinken also said NATO would stand in the way if Putin sought to set his sights beyond Ukraine.

“There’s something very powerful standing in the way of that. That’s something we call Article 5 of NATO. That means an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all members of NATO,” he said. “The President’s been very clear that we will defend every inch of NATO territory. I think that’s the most powerful deterrent against President Putin going beyond Ukraine.”

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In response to the military campaign, U.S. 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.

The United States is also prepared to accept Ukrainian refugees and assist European countries neighboring Ukraine handle refugees fleeing a Russian invasion, Psaki said Sunday.

“We certainly expect that most if not the majority will want to go to Europe and neighboring countries,” Psaki said. “So, we are also working with European countries on what the needs are, where there is capacity. Poland for example, where we are seeing an increasing flow of refugees over the last 24 hours.”

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The U.S. Agency for International Development deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team made up of 17 disaster experts to assess the situation, identify priority needs and scale up assistance inside Ukraine alongside partners.

“The team will lead the U.S. Government’s humanitarian response to help address critical needs caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including responding to the needs of those internally displaced,” the USAID said in a statement.

There were 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.