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KYIV, Ukraine—Russian shelling in southern Ukraine sparked a fire at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant before Russian troops took control of the area, according to local authorities and international observers, raising fears that Moscow’s increasingly indiscriminate war could cause a global environmental disaster.

The fire, extinguished Friday morning, erupted at the Zaporizhzhia power plant’s training facility, Ukraine’s emergency service said. None of the plant’s six reactors were affected and no radiation leaked, officials said. Both sides said Russian troops at the complex weren’t interfering with the plant’s Ukrainian staff.

Still, the skirmish provoked international condemnation and fanned fears of a repeat of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which sent a vast plume of radioactive steam across Europe and rendered the region surrounding the plant uninhabitable.

Russian forces pushing from the south reached Enerhodar, where the Zaporizhzhia plant is located, on Wednesday. After surrender negotiations failed, a Russian column attacked the city on Thursday. Webcam footage showed a fireball rising behind a church in the city, a short distance from the nuclear facilities, and then two munitions, possibly illumination rounds, landed on the compound itself.

“What we understand is that this projectile is…coming from the Russian forces,” International Atomic Energy Agency Director General

Rafael Grossi

told journalists on Friday. Mr. Grossi said he had offered to travel to Ukraine for talks on ensuring the protection of nuclear sites.

During Russian shelling on Friday, a fire broke out at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and raised concerns over a potential environmental disaster. The Ukrainian president called for a direct meeting with Vladimir Putin, who said the operation is going as planned. Photo: Energoatom/Reuters

Ukrainian President

Volodymyr Zelensky

called the attack an act of terror that put all of Europe at risk.

“We survived the night that could have put an end to history,” he said, reiterating his call on the West to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Russia’s government blamed the Ukrainian military for the incident, which it called “an attempt at sabotage.”

“The purpose of this was to blame Russia for what happened,” the Defense Ministry television channel Zvezda cited the ministry as saying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack on the nuclear facility was an act of terror that put all of Europe at risk.



Photo:

AFP/Getty Images

The war that Russian President

Vladimir Putin

launched more than a week ago to overthrow Ukraine’s democratically elected government and end its alignment with the West has run into fierce resistance. The Russian offensive has stalled around the capital, Kyiv, but forces have advanced in the northeast and south of the country and Moscow has resorted to indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods in cities like Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol and Sumy.

On Friday, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General

Jens Stoltenberg

said members of the alliance had agreed they wouldn’t establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine to slow the fighting or send troops into the country. But he said the alliance would continue to support Kyiv in other ways and warned the days ahead would likely worsen as Russia intensified its attacks.

“NATO is not party to the conflict. NATO is a defensive alliance,” Mr. Stoltenberg said Friday ahead of an emergency gathering of the alliance’s foreign ministers in Brussels. “We don’t seek war, conflict with Russia.”

U.S. Secretary of State

Antony Blinken,

who was in Brussels for consultations with NATO, European Union and Group of Seven officials, echoed the concerns about direct military conflict with Russia.

“President Biden has been clear that we are not going to get into a war with Russia,” Mr. Blinken told reporters. “But we are going to tremendous lengths with allies and partners to provide the Ukrainians with the means to effectively defend themselves.”

Mr. Zelensky criticized NATO’s decision not to intervene, saying the Western alliance had shown its weakness and disunity.

“Today, the leadership of the alliance has given a green light to further bombardment of Ukrainian cities and villages,” he said.

A senior U.S. defense official said Friday that since Feb. 26, the U.S. had delivered to Ukraine $240 million in weaponry taken from U.S. military stocks. U.S. officials have said the shipments include Javelin antitank weaponry, Stinger antiaircraft missiles, small arms and ammunition.

The administration is asking Congress to provide additional military support to Ukraine. The U.S. has been working closely with Britain, Canada, Lithuania and Poland to coordinate security assistance to Ukraine, the Defense official added. All told, 14 countries are providing such security assistance to Ukraine

Residents helped to build fortifications near a Kyiv metro station.



Photo:

Christopher Occhicone for The Wall Street Journal

Destroyed Russian armored vehicles sat on the streets of Bucha, west of Kyiv.



Photo:

ARIS MESSINIS/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The column of Russian armored vehicles broke into Enerhodar about 4:30 p.m. local time on Thursday and without warning began firing on the nuclear compound from a short range, causing civilian casualties, Enerhodar Mayor Dmitry Orlov said.

Two reactors were operating at the time of the Russian attack on the power plant. The plant’s management switched off reactor No. 3 during the shelling, leaving only reactor No. 4 online, Ukraine’s state emergency service said. Ukraine operates nine other nuclear reactors elsewhere in the country.

An employee of the plant said the attack was the third by Russian forces in the past few days. Backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers, the Russian troops began by destroying a checkpoint outside the nuclear plant that had been manned by local Territorial Defense force members, he said. During crossfire at a second checkpoint, the building near the plant caught fire, he added. Three of the Ukrainian defenders were killed and one Russian tank was destroyed. Afterward, the Russians took control of the entrance to the plant but didn’t enter it, the employee said.

Russian shelling in the power plant area paused after 3 a.m. local time Friday, Mr. Orlov wrote on social media. Russian forces prevented the emergency service from dispatching firefighters to the site for hours, Ukraine’s state emergency service said. The fire was extinguished at 6:20 a.m., it said

As of Friday morning, the management building at the Zaporizhzhia plant was occupied by Russian forces, said Energoatom, the operator of all Ukrainian nuclear power generators. Both the Russian government and the IAEA said the plant’s Ukrainian staff were still operating the facility.

A resident of Enerhodar who gave her name as Marina said she and her family had been sheltering at their home throughout the night and into the day.

“Our city doesn’t even have any bomb shelters,” she said. “They don’t tell us anything, and we can’t find out anything.”

Enerhodar Mayor Dmitry Orlov released footage showing an explosion behind a church located a few miles from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Credit: Dmitry Orlov via Storyful

Meanwhile, Russian forces in southern Ukraine were nearing another nuclear plant in the Mykolaiv region, Ukrainian officials said. Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky who took part in cease-fire negotiations with Russia on Thursday, said Kyiv had offered Russia to mutually agree not to conduct combat operations in zones within 30 kilometers of nuclear reactors. Russia didn’t accept that proposal, he said.

The IAEA has said Ukraine’s reactors are built to withstand major incidents. But

David Albright,

a former nuclear inspector and now president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said combat could nonetheless cause a major nuclear accident to happen.

In case of a power outage, a direct hit on the emergency power supplies of a reactor could cause its core to go into meltdown and explode, which could breach the containment structure and cause a substantial radioactive leak.

A missile hit on a spent fuel pond could also breach the structure and cause the water to spill out, leaving highly radioactive material, including plutonium, exposed. Mr. Albright said some of Ukraine’s other reactors are older and may be less well built to withstand a missile strike or other major incident.

Moscow has intensified its military offensive in southern Ukraine, penetrating the city of Kherson. Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have agreed to establish humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave besieged cities, but failed Thursday to reach an agreement on an overall cease-fire.

A Ukrainian service member patrolling in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.



Photo:

VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI/REUTERS

Rescue workers amid the debris of a school destroyed by shelling in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.



Photo:

VIACHESLAV RATYNSKYI/REUTERS

Mr. Putin, who has signaled he is determined to continue the war, told German Chancellor

Olaf Scholz

in a Friday call that a new round of negotiations would take place over the weekend, the German government said. Mr. Scholz urged the president to stop all attacks and to allow civilians to evacuate the combat zones.

Russian forces have surrounded and shelled the Azov Sea port town of Mariupol, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said. He said the city of 430,000 residents lacks food and is “on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe,” and needs a cease-fire to restore electricity and water services.

Graphic designer Diana Berg, who left Mariupol on Thursday, said telephone service in much of the city had stopped working after Russian forces targeted cell towers.

She described the situation in the city as “absolute hell.” People were moving from one district to another, she said, hoping to escape the fighting. Most residents left home only to retrieve water and bread, standing sometimes for hours despite the risk from Russian artillery and bombs.

Ms. Berg said that leaving Mariupol was almost as dangerous as staying in the city. “The sky now is a source of death and destruction,” she said. “So we had to decide between one way of getting killed and another. We were lucky to survive.”

A fire burned on Wednesday in Mariupol, which has been surrounded by Russian forces and relentlessly shelled.



Photo:

@AYBURLACHENKO/REUTERS

In the southern city of Kherson, the first regional capital seized in the Russian advance, occupation forces have taken over the local administration buildings but haven’t removed Ukraine’s flag from the regional government headquarters, according to residents.

Kherson Gov. Hennadiy Lahuta said Friday that Russia had bused in a large number of people from Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014, and planned to organize a propaganda event on the city’s Freedom Square. These people would pretend to be local residents and ask for Kherson, home to 270,000 people, to be separated from Ukraine, he said.

“Stay away from this theater of the absurd, don’t help the enemy,” he urged.

Later in the day, Russian forces organized the distribution of humanitarian aid in Kherson. Local residents came to the area waving Ukrainian flags.

In several other occupied towns local residents have also come out to the streets, waving Ukrainian flags, yelling at Russian soldiers to go home, and trying to block the movement of Russian columns. The Ukrainian army has urged civilians in the rear to attack lightly armed supply convoys, saying that Russian tanks on the front would be useless without fuel or ammunition.

“We will chase them away, with shame,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Every occupier must know they will not obtain anything here. They will not have anyone submit to them. Anywhere they enter they will be exterminated.”

A house burned in Irpin, outside Kyiv, after it was shelled.



Photo:

aris messinis/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Ukraine’s military said Friday that Russia’s main effort continues to be surrounding Kyiv and weakening resistance in encircled cities. Amid heavy fighting, the Russian military has exhausted most of its operational reserves in the area and is preparing to send additional forces, it said. Russia continues preparations for an amphibious assault on the port city of Odessa, Ukraine’s military added.

On Thursday night and Friday morning, Ukraine released footage of what it said was pushback on Kyiv’s outskirts, with destroyed Russian armor and dead Russian soldiers in the northern towns of Bucha, Irpen and Hostomel and in the village of Peremoha.

“Ukrainian armed forces have gained more tanks and armored personnel carriers as trophies than they received from Ukrainian defense industries in the past eight years,” Defense Minister

Oleksii Reznikov

said Friday. He added that the Ukrainian military had to make “difficult decisions,” maneuvering away from some areas, to preserve its fighting forces. Ukraine also scuttled its navy’s flagship, the Hetman Sahaydachny, which was under repair, so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands, he said.

Human Rights Watch said Friday that Russian forces had fired cluster munitions into at least three residential areas in Kharkiv on Monday, killing at least three civilians, an assessment based on interviews with witnesses and the analysis of videos and photographs. Cluster munitions open before landing and disperse smaller munitions, many of which often fail to explode and can become long-term hazards for civilians. Such munitions are banned by an international convention that neither Ukraine nor Russia is party to.

Red Cross workers were helping refugees in Lviv, western Ukraine.



Photo:

Justyna Mielnikiewicz/MAPS for The Wall Street Journal

Red Cross tents were set up outside the train station in Lviv, a major stop for Ukrainians seeking to leave the country and enter Poland.



Photo:

Justyna Mielnikiewicz/MAPS for The Wall Street Journal

In Russia, the government continued to tighten its control on information about the war, which it has described as a defensive operation focused mainly on military targets despite an abundance of evidence showing Russian forces bombing residential areas.

Russia’s lower house of parliament passed legislation Friday imposing prison sentences of up to 15 years for the dissemination of what it calls “fake news” about the actions of Russian soldiers.

“There’s a chance that literally tomorrow its direct application will force those who lied and made statements discrediting our Armed Forces to face punishment, and a very harsh one,” House speaker

Vyacheslav Volodin

was quoted as saying in a statement on the website of the Duma, parliament’s lower house.

Russia has moved swiftly to restrict dissent over the invasion. Police have detained thousands of protesters across the country and blocked media outlets that refused to refer to the war using Mr. Putin’s euphemism of “special military operation.”

As of Friday, multiple news organizations had announced they were halting their operations under state pressure, including news outlet Meduza, TV station Dozhd, and radio station Ekho Moskvy, which launched in the waning days of the Soviet Union and has long been seen as a refuge for voices critical of the authorities.

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at [email protected] and Laurence Norman at [email protected]

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