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Russian forces seize key Ukrainian nuclear plant; fire out with no radiation released

( NBC )

Russian forces took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant Friday after their attack on the site sparked a fire and fears of nuclear meltdown, but seemingly released no radiation.

The blaze at the Zaporizhzhia plant, located in Ukraine's southeast, was extinguished early Friday but not before it spread concerns about the potential for catastrophic fallout across the continent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who previously raised the specter of nuclear war over Europe, said Friday he had "no bad intention" toward neighboring countries but warned against doing anything that might "escalate the situation."

With the invasion entering its second week, he has intensified his assault on Ukraine and deepened a crackdown on dissent at home. Russian forces made gains in Ukraine's south and besieged major cities, worsening a grave humanitarian crisis despite some progress in talks between the two countries.

The fire at the power plant, which broke out after fierce fighting between Russian troops and Ukrainian forces, was extinguished several hours after it ignited alarm across world capitals.

The head of the United Nations’ atomic agency said that a Russian “projectile” hit a training center at the plant and that no radiation was released.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi sad that Russian forces were at the plant, but the Ukrainians were in control of the reactor. Ukrainian authorities said Russian forces had “occupied” the site.

Russia’s defense ministry also said the plant was working normally and that its forces were in control, but blamed the fire on a “monstrous attack” by Ukrainian saboteurs. It offered no evidence for the claim.

The incident evoked memories of the world’s largest nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986. That site is now also occupied by Russian forces.

In an emotional video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russian forces of deliberately targeting the Zaporizhzhia power plant.

“They know where they are shooting,” he said in a message posted on Telegram.

"If there is an explosion it is the end for all of us. The end of Europe. The evacuation of Europe."

President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Zelenskyy as the incident sparked a flurry of late-night activity from world leaders.

The U.N. Security Council was set to hold an urgent meeting later Friday on the issue after requests from the United States and others.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Russia’s actions, saying the shelling “just demonstrates the recklessness of this war."

Stoltenberg also said Friday that NATO had "seen the use of cluster bombs" by Russia in Ukraine.

Speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels, he said Russia's invasion was "a blatant violation of international law."

He also welcomed the decision from the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into Russia's invasion, calling the country's attack on Ukraine "inhumane."

Russia’s advances have brought death and destruction to civilian areas across Ukraine, fueling a rapidly growing humanitarian crisis.

Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians.

Enerhodar, the crucial energy-producing city near to the Zaporizhzhia plant, was just one of the fronts where Russian forces were advancing in Ukraine's south.

The strategic port city of Kherson on the Dnieper river came under Russian control Thursday, the first major city they have seized since launching their invasion last week. Along the coast, Mariupol, a large city on the Azov Sea, remained in Ukrainian hands but was encircled and blockaded by Russian forces. It was facing intense shelling and was without electricity, heat or water.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Friday that the situation in the country was at a “tipping point.”

“The situation in the south remains difficult,” he said, and hard decisions had to be made about where to deploy the country’s forces.

But Reznikov added that a fierce defense in the northern cities of Sumy and Chernihiv, where Russian troops have been bogged down, had spared the capital from coming under siege.

A mileslong Russian military convoy threatening Kyiv has made little progress over the last few days, with Russia’s northern advance stalled due to staunch Ukrainian resistance and its own logistical issues.

The nuclear scare came just hours after a second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials ended with the two sides tentatively agreeing to establish humanitarian corridors for the safe evacuation of civilians and the delivery of supplies to those staying in the country.

The International Organization for Migration said Friday that as many as 1.25 million people had now fled the country.

UNICEF said that around half of those fleeing are children, with around 500,000 children, including infants, forced to leave their homes behind, according to the agency's estimates. It said the exodus was "unprecedented in scale and speed."

Air raid sirens sounded early Friday in the western city Lviv, which has become a hub for international diplomats, the news media and refugees fleeing west.

Trains there from Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities under attack have been packed with families desperate to find safety. Civilians who have stayed have been forced to shelter in basements and metro stations, while others have taken up arms to join the fight.

Ukrainian Foreign Secretary Dmytro Kuleba, who said he took part in Friday's NATO meeting, issued a fresh call for Ukraine's allies to "act now before it's too late."

In a tweet, he urged the world not to "let Putin turn Ukraine into Syria."

"We are ready to fight. We will continue fighting. But we need partners to help us with concrete, resolute and swift actions, now," he said.

'No bad intentions'

Western officials have warned that the darkest days of the invasion lie ahead, with Putin warning neighboring countries not to intervene in Russia's war.

“There are no bad intentions toward our neighbors," the Russian leader said Friday, "and I would also advise them not to escalate the situation, not to introduce any restrictions."

“We do not see any need here to aggravate or worsen our relations,” Putin said, as he warned: “All our actions, if they arise, they always arise exclusively in response to some unfriendly actions, actions against the Russian Federation.”

Moscow says it was provoked by the West and launched the conflict to disarm Ukraine and capture leaders it calls neo-Nazis. Ukraine and its allies say that is a baseless pretext for a war to conquer the country of 44 million people Putin has made clear he sees as rightfully part of Russia.

As Russian forces showed no signs of relenting Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said NATO members continued to provide support for Ukraine.

He also said the alliance was prepared to defend “every inch” of its territory from any attack.

“Ours is a defensive alliance,” he said, as he arrived for the meeting in Brussels. “We seek no conflict, but if conflict comes to us, we’re ready for it and we will defend every inch of NATO territory.”

Ukraine is not a member of NATO. Countries within the alliance have so far sent arms to Ukraine, but have resisted engaging in any action that might bring them into direct conflict with Russia, such as establishing a no-fly zone.

But global condemnation has been allied with crippling sanctions that have sent Russia’s economy spiraling.

Washington introduced fresh sanctions Thursday targeting Russian oligarchs and their families.

The Biden administration said the new sanctions would allow yachts, luxury apartments, money and other assets linked to oligarchs to be seized in a bid to increase pressure on Putin to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine.

Companies such as Ikea have shut down their operations in Russia, while the country’s stock market remained closed on Friday.

With his global isolation growing, Putin has tightened his grip domestically.

The country's parliament passed a bill Friday introducing sentences of up to 15 years in prison for intentionally spreading “fake” information about military action.

Putin's security services have intensified a crackdown on dissent and moved to quash any protests as well as coverage of the war that doesn't meet the Kremlin’s strict requirements.

Russia's communications watchdog has restricted access to the BBC Russian service as well as Voice of America, Radio Liberty and other foreign-based media outlets for spreading what it cast as false information about the conflict, the RIA state news agency reported.

The independent radio network Echo of Moscow and the television station TV Rain also said they were halting operations Thursday.

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