(CN) — Russian troops were accused of attacking and then seizing Europe's largest nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine early Friday morning as Moscow's brutal invasion slowly advanced amid heavy fighting and mounting chaos.
Russian troops moved onto the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant during the night and were met with heavy fighting by Ukrainian forces. A fire likely caused by the fighting erupted on the site, sparking fears of a potential nuclear disaster and a new round of condemnation was hurled at the Kremlin, with the U.S. embassy in Ukraine calling it a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant. Russia blamed Ukrainian forces for the fire.
By Friday afternoon, the site was under the control of Russia and Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, assured the world that the site was being run by the plant's regular staff and that there had been no release of radioactive material. The plant provides Ukraine with a large amount of its electricity. Only one of six reactors was active at the time of the fight and that one too was being shut down.
“It is a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant. Putin’s shelling of Europe’s largest nuclear plant takes his reign of terror one step further,” the American embassy in Ukraine said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also used the threat of a nuclear disaster to try to get the Russian population to rise up against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“If there is an explosion, that's the end for everyone. The end for Europe, the evacuation of Europe,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. In another video message, he called on Russians to remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and pleaded for them to stop Putin's invasion.
Russia accused Ukrainian forces of opening fire on them from a training building adjacent to the nuclear reactors and provoking Russia into attacking the plant.
Elsewhere, heavy fighting was going on across eastern and southern Ukraine where Russian troops have taken the city of Kherson, encircled the port of Mariupol and are advancing on Odessa, Ukraine's most important Black Sea port.
Battles continue to rage in the northeast in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, and Russian battalions have begun attacking the outskirts of Kyiv while a large convoy seeks to encircle the capital.
The heaviest fighting was reportedly taking place in the eastern regions where hardened Ukrainian forces and militia groups have been fighting Russian and Ukrainian Russian troops in Donbas, a region claimed by pro-Russian separatists in 2014. A long-simmering war had been taking place there since 2014 and the inability to resolve that conflict led in part to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24.
A large chunk of Ukraine’s forces is believed to be concentrated in the Donbas area and Russian forces are seeking to encircle them.
Among these fighters are members of allegedly neo-Nazi militias, including the Azov Battalion and the Aidar Battalion, who are considered some of Ukraine’s most war-hardened fighters. They are now being hunted down by Russian troops upon the orders of Putin, who said the invasion was meant to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Both groups were accused of war crimes and atrocities after fighting broke out in 2014 and pro-Russian sources say the groups are using extreme violence, including against civilians and civilian infrastructure, as they fight the Russian invasion.
Heavy fighting in Kharkiv and Mariupol is connected to the struggle over Donbas because Russian possession of these two cities – at the north and south of the Donbas region, respectively – is critical in Moscow’s war plans.