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Russian forces move toward second-largest nuclear facility in Ukraine

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Russian forces move toward second-largest nuclear facility in Ukraine
Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, talks about the fire at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station on Friday at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria. The blaze was put out, but the plant is now under Russian control. Photo by Christian Bruna/EPA-EFE

March 4 (UPI) -- Russian forces pressed on toward the second-largest nuclear facility in Ukraine on Friday after taking control of the largest nuclear power plant in the country.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the international body that Russian forces are now 20 miles "and closing" from reaching the Yuzhnoukrainsk Nuclear Power Station in southern Ukraine, CNN reported.

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"President Putin must stop this humanitarian catastrophe by ending this war and ceasing these unconscionable attacks against the people of Ukraine," she said.

If Russian forces are successful in taking control of Yuzhnoukrainsk, it will be the third nuclear facility in Ukraine that has fallen into the hands of Russia.

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Earlier Friday, Russian forces took control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in the country's southeast after a shelling attack -- an act of aggression that U.S. officials say amounts to a war crime.

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The fighting at the plant was the second time Russian forces seized control of a nuclear power station since the fighting began a week ago. The first was Chernobyl, the infamous plant that exploded in 1986 after a partial core meltdown and spread radiation across Europe.

Fire broke out at the Zaporizhzhia facility after it was hit by a Russian projectile. The fire burned for hours but was eventually put out, and officials said no radiation was released in the area. Western officials condemned the Russian attack as "reckless."

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The company that operates the plant -- which is the largest nuclear power station in Europe -- said that three Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the fighting.

Russian officials on Friday blamed Ukrainian forces for the fire at the Zaporizhzhia plant, saying they are responsible for a "monstrous provocation" that resulted in the blaze.

There are six nuclear reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant, which was built by the former Soviet Union in the early 1980s. A pro-Russian separatist unsuccessfully tried to gain control of the plant in 2014.

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The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv condemned the attack on Friday.

"It is a war crime to attack a nuclear power plant," the embassy said in a tweet. "[Russia's] shelling of Europe's largest nuclear plant takes his reign of terror one step further."

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station is seen in southeastern Ukraine. A fire that started at the plant as a result of Russian bombing was extinguished on Friday, but the facility is now controlled by Russian forces. File Photo by Sergei Supinsky/EPA
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Meanwhile, Moscow's forces have continued their aggressive bombing of multiple cities as Western allies intensified their complaints that Russia has escalated attacks against civilians and critical infrastructure.

Several large explosions shook Kyiv on Friday as Russian forces try to push through stiff Ukrainian resistance and capture the city. Heavy shelling has also been going on in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. Russian forces captured Kherson earlier this week, a key port city in southern Ukraine.

British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said Friday that Russia's attack on the plant was irresponsible because it could have led to a serious radiation leak, which would have been harmful for all of Europe.

"It's very difficult to believe that it wasn't done deliberately," Raab said, according to CNN. "But in any event, it is unlawful to attack a site like this and not to do your due diligence on it and to keep bombarding it."

Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine's culture and information policy minister, accused Moscow of targeting cultural sites in Ukraine and urged allies to establish a no-fly zone over the country.

"Most of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's war crimes in Ukraine have been committed from the air," Tkachenko said, according to CNN. "Russia's missiles and planes are deliberately destroying historic centers of big cities. Putin wants to destroy Europe's heritage and culture, wipe it from the face of the Earth."

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Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that he wasn't sure whether a promise made by both sides to create "humanitarian corridors" for refugees will be established. Both sides had agreed to provide the humanitarian space during a second round of peace talks in Belarus on Thursday.

Ukraine military officials also said Friday that they deliberately torpedoed one of their flagship vessels in the Black Sea to keep it from falling into Russian hands.

Russian lawmakers on Friday passed a proposed law to criminalize any actions that discredit Moscow's military campaign in Ukraine, the Russian state-run TASS news agency reported. The offense is punishable by several years in prison.

On Thursday, Ukraine agreed to an investigation by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to look into possible war crimes by Russia. Earlier this week, the International Criminal Court also began an investigation into possible war crimes by all sides in fighting going back to 2013.

Scenes from the Russian war on Ukraine

European Union leaders attend a summit at the Chateau de Versailles near Paris on March 11, 2022. Photo by the European Union/ UPI | License Photo

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