1 million flee Ukraine as Russia steps up assault on Mariupol, Kherson

Russian forces were occupying Europe’s largest nuclear plant after heavy shelling and a fire that was extinguished Friday morning, according to Ukrainian officials.

The State Inspectorate for Nuclear Regulation of Ukraine said in a Facebook post that the Zaporizhzhia plant was being “occupied by the military forces of the Russian Federation,” according to an NBC News translation.

The occupation came after a fire in a training building at the plant, which triggered calls for troops to immediately retreat amid fears of nuclear danger.

The fire was declared to be out around 6:20 am local time, and there were no victims, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine said in a statement, according to an NBC News translation.

Units at the plant remained intact, the inspector said. Though there was damage to the reactor compartment of one unit, the damage did not affect the unit’s safety, the office said.

There have been no changes in the radiation status at the plant, the inspectorate said.

The latest developments on Ukraine:

While the blaze burned, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, said on Twitter that if the power plant blows up “it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl.”

“Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia,” Kuleba tweeted. “Fire has already broke out.”

He called for an immediate ceasefire in the vicinity of the plant.

Andriy Tuz, a spokesperson for the plant in Enerhodar, said in a video posted on Telegram that there “is a real threat of nuclear danger in the biggest atomic energy station in Europe.”

The attack had prevented firefighters from immediately accessing the nuclear plant, the State Emergency Service said on Facebook, adding that rescuers were on standby.

The country’s emergency services department later said there was a fire in a training building behind the plant, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said no “essential” equipment had been damaged.

The agency added that there was no change in radiation levels at the site. The White House later said that its latest information showed “no indications of elevated levels of radiation.”

President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about the fire. In a summary of the call released by the White House, Biden urged Russia to stop military activities in the area so firefighters and emergency responders could get to the site.

The fresh tensions in Ukraine 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 caught in the crossfire and the delivery of supplies to those staying in the country.

“I think this is a significant progress,” Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s chief negotiator on the ceasefire talks, said in a video message.

More than 1 million people have already fled Ukraine in a rapid exodus after a week of war, as Russia’s military bombarded key cities across the country amid staunch resistance to the invasion.

The conflict has fueled a growing humanitarian crisis in Europe, and left those who have remained in Ukraine facing an intensifying assault from the air and the ground.

But a mileslong Russian military convoy threatening the Ukrainian capital has made little progress over the last three days. Russian forces’ northern advance has faced a fierce Ukrainian defense and its own logistical issues. They appear to have had made more significant gains in the south, with one key port city under Russian control and another struggling to hold out under siege.

The bombardment didn’t look like it would end anytime soon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated a call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, an Élysée Presidential Palace source said, describing it as “not-so-friendly.”

Putin said the campaign would continue unless Ukraine accepted Moscow’s conditions, the source said.

The Russian leader told Macron in the call that the “situation will get worse, but Ukraine chose it,” the source said. “Putin’s goal is to take control of all of Ukraine,” they added.

Zelenskyy called on residents to keep up their resistance, while branding Russian soldiers “children who are being used.”

Moscow faced further international isolation and condemnation. But the country vowed to press on with the war even as officials from both sides sat down for a second round of talks in Belarus that concluded without any significant breakthroughs.

Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s chief negotiator, said his team agreed with Ukrainian negotiators to create humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians.

Meanwhile, the US military has established channels to communicate directly with the Russian military as a way to deconflict tactical movements around Ukraine, according to a senior defense official.

‘Humanitarian disaster’

From the capital, Kyiv, to Kharkiv in the northeast and Kherson in the south, Russia’s advances have brought destruction to major Ukrainian cities and civilian areas.

The bombardment of Ukrainian cities has pushed residents to flee to neighboring countries and forced many more of the nation’s 44 million residents to seek shelter underground or head west by road or train.

“I have worked in refugee for emergencies almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement issued Thursday.

In Lviv, a city in the country’s west that has become a hub for international diplomats and the news media, trains heading out of Ukraine are packed with families desperate to make it to safety.

Many are wheeling small suitcases and carrying backpacks containing all the possessions they could carry. In the frigid temperatures, parents are wrapped up in thick winter coats and hats, their children’s faces scared.

Serheii Shpak, 28, said it took two days for his family to make it from Kharkiv to Lviv. He decided it was time to leave after sheltering in the metro system with his 1-year-old son and wife while Russian forces shelled the city.

He said the journey was filled with panicked Ukrainians trying to make it to safety. “The carriages were really crowded,” said Shpak, a web developer.

He said he planned to head to nearby Vinnytsia so his family could start a new life further from the threat of Russian attacks.

The Unites States will extend what’s known as temporary protected status, which would allow them to remain in the country without fear of deportation, for 18 months to Ukrainian nationals on US soil as of March 1, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Thursday. People who enter the US after that date will not be eligible.

“Our hearts stand with the Ukrainian people who are suffering so much tragedy and so much loss,” Mayorkas said in a video posted to Twitter. “We will do everything in our power to support them.”

The Biden administration Thursday also asked Congress to provide $10 billion in humanitarian and defense assistance for Ukraine.

But for Ukrainians in two key cities looking to escape, prospects were dimming Thursday.

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