LVIV, Ukraine/KYIV/PARIS, March 4 (Reuters) – A huge blaze in a building at the site of Europe’s biggest nuclear power station was extinguished on Friday and officials said the plant was operating normally, seized by Russian forces in heavy fighting that caused global alarm.
Officials said the fire at the Zaporizhzhia compound was in a training centre and not at the plant itself. An official at Energoatom, the state enterprise that runs Ukraine’s four nuclear plants, said there was no further fighting, the fire was out, radiation was normal and Russian forces were in control.
The prospect that fighting at the plant could cause a potential nuclear disaster had set world financial markets tumbling.
Even with that scenario seemingly averted, Russia’s grip on a plant that provides more than a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity was a big development after eight days of war in which other Russian advances have been stalled by fierce resistance.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and other Western officials said there was no indication of elevated radiation levels at the plant.
Earlier, a video from the plant verified by Reuters showed one building aflame, and a volley of incoming shells, before a large incandescent ball lit up the sky, exploding beside a car park and sending smoke billowing across the compound.
“Europeans, please wake up. Tell your politicians – Russian troops are shooting at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine,” Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address. In another address later he called on Russians to protest.
He also called on Russians to protests over the attack.
The mayor of the nearby town of Energodar about 550 km (342 miles) southeast of Kyiv said fierce fighting and “continuous enemy shelling” had caused casualties in the area, without providing details.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed or wounded and more than 1 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Feb. 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two.
Russian forces advancing from three directions have besieged Ukrainian cities and pounded them with artillery and air strikes. Moscow says its aim is to disarm its neighbour and capture leaders it calls neo-Nazis. Ukraine and its Western allies call that a baseless pretext for a war to conquer the country of 44 million people.
Russia had already captured the defunct Chernobyl plant north of Kyiv, which spewed radioactive waste over much of Europe when it melted down in 1986. The Zaporizhzhia plant is a different and safer type.
FIGHTING RAGES, SANCTIONS MOUNT
Loud explosions could be heard in Kyiv on Friday morning and an air raid siren blared. Reuters journalists in the capital were not immediately able to determine the cause of the blasts.
Only one Ukrainian city, the southern port of Kherson, has fallen to Russian forces since the invasion was launched on Feb. 24, but Russian forces continue to surround and attack other cities.
The southeastern port city of Mariupol has been encircled by Russian forces and subjected to intense strikes, Britain said in an intelligence update on Friday.
“Mariupol remains under Ukrainian control but has likely been encircled by Russian forces,” the Ministry of Defence said. “The city’s civilian infrastructure has been subjected to intense Russian strikes.”
The northeastern cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv have been under attack since the start of the invasion, but defenders are holding out.
Kyiv, the capital of 3 million people, has been shelled but has so far been spared a major assault, with Russia’s main attack force stalled for days in a miles-long convoy on a highway to the north. In Washington, a U.S. defence official said Russians were still 25 km (16 miles) from Kyiv city centre.
On Thursday, Russia and Ukraine negotiators agreed at peace talks on the need for humanitarian corridors to help civilians escape and to deliver medicines and food to areas of fighting.
In Russia itself, where Putin’s main opponents have largely been jailed or driven into exile over the past year, the war has been accompanied by a further crackdown on dissent. Authorities have banned reports that refer to the “special military operation” as a “war” or “invasion”. Anti-war demonstrations have been quickly squelched with thousands of arrests.
The last major independent broadcasters, TV Dozhd (Rain) and Ekho Moskvy radio, were shuttered on Thursday. The State Duma lower house of parliament introduced legislation on Friday to impose jail terms on people for spreading “fake” reports about the military.