KYIV – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has compared the April 26, 1986, Chornobyl nuclear disaster with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine’s east, adding that “Russia is conducting an undeclared war against his country.”
President Poroshenko spoke at the defunct nuclear power plant, where he and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka lamented the “unhealing wound” inflicted by the Soviet-era accident 31 years ago and commemorated its victims.
“We again have buried thousands of people. Again we have hundreds of thousands of displaced people,” Mr. Poroshenko said, referring to the conflict with Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 9,900 people in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
“I am confident that together, we will defeat that demon as well,” he said.
Mr. Lukashenka voiced solidarity, saying that “Belarusians are and will always be your reliable friends” – a tacit reassurance that while Belarus is Russia’s ally, it is also wary of Moscow and does not support Russia’s infringements on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Reactor No. 4 at the power plant north of Kyiv, in then-Soviet Ukraine exploded at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, after a safety test went wrong.
About 30 people died in the immediate aftermath and thousands more are feared to have died in the years that followed from the effects of the disaster, which spread radiation across parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and large swaths of Europe.
The precise number of victims and extent of the damage remains the subject of debate, in part because the Soviet authorities took days to publicly acknowledge the disaster and kept information hidden.
Last year, the crumbling “sarcophagus” used to contain radiation from the smoldering reactor at the time was replaced with a 2.3-billion-dollar metal dome in a bid to stop future leaks. More than 200 tons of uranium remain buried inside.
Two years before the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan following a losing war of occupation, the Chornobyl disaster was in retrospect another sign of the weaknesses of the Communist giant that collapsed in 1991.
Mr. Poroshenko called it “an unhealing wound that we live with as a people.”
“Perhaps more than anyone else, the Chornobyl tragedy affected our Belarusian brothers,” he said, referring to the fact that winds blew radiation northward into Belarus, where some of its strongest effects were felt.
“Both Belarusians and Ukrainians know that the Chornobyl catastrophe knows no borders,” Mr. Lukashenka said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman paid tribute to the Chornobyl “liquidators” – emergency workers, state employees, and others sent in to clean up after the disaster with little or no preparation, protective gear or information about the gruesome dangers they faced.
“Thank you to the heroes who, at the expense of their own lives and health, protected us from the horrible consequences of this tragedy,” Mr. Groysman wrote on Facebook.
With reporting by AFP, Unian, and Belta.
Copyright 2017, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (see http://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-poroshenko-compares-chernobyl-fighting-donbas/ 28453056.html).