Ukrainian nuclear plant workers are reportedly fleeing a brutal Russian hunt for saboteurs

KYIV (NYTIMES) – Russian soldiers who control a giant nuclear power plant in Ukraine are detaining workers and subjecting them to brutal interrogations in a search for possible saboteurs, prompting many employees to leave and raising concerns about safety, Ukrainian officials said.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – Europe’s largest – lies in southern Ukraine in the city of Enerhodar on the eastern side of the Dnipro River, across from territory still held by Ukrainian forces.

With 11,000 workers, the plant occupies a strategically important spot, and safety concerns at the plant make any Ukrainian counter-offensive to retake the area particularly complicated.

Russian forces have fortified the outside of the plant with trenches and heavy artillery, and inside they are stepping up measures to find anyone they think might pose a threat, according to local and company officials.

Enerhodar’s exiled mayor, Mr Dmytro Orlov, says he has received reports from employees and residents that workers at the plant are regularly abducted by Russian soldiers, “thrown into basements” and interrogated about suspected insurgent activity.

Speaking on a Radio Svoboda programme called “Azov News,” he said people who had remained in the city to safely operate the plant and avoid accidents were working “under moral and physical pressure.” He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Many plant employees and other residents are trying to escape to Ukrainian-held territory, he said.

“Even young people are leaving the city,” he said. “It is unclear who will operate the nuclear power plant.”

Mr Orlov’s statements could not be independently confirmed. The state company that oversees the complex, Energoatom, has offered similar accounts based on interviews with workers at the plant.

Mr Petro Kotin, the acting president of Energoatom, told reporters last month that the Russians were using the nuclear power plant as a military base.

“Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is a well-fortified facility even in peacetime,” he said. “It is a perfect military base. Moreover, the Russians understand that the amount of nuclear material that is located there protects them. Ukraine will not strike at such an object.”

Enerhodar, like other the Russia-occupied areas in the south, has been the scene of attacks by Ukrainian partisans and reprisals by Russian forces. Moscow has cracked down in the face of a growing resistance movement in southern Ukraine, including violence, civil disobedience and efforts to help the Ukrainian military.

Tensions in the city escalated on May 22, when Mr Andrii Shevchyk, whom the Russians had installed as mayor, was injured in a bombing outside his apartment. He had to be airlifted to Crimea for medical treatment.

The next day, according to Energoatom, an employee of the nuclear power plant was shot multiple times at his home by Russian forces.

Mr Vladimir Rogov, a Russian proxy on the main governing council for the Zaporizka region, which includes the nuclear plant, said in television interview on Tuesday (June 21) that it was time to institute the death penalty for “war criminals.”

Mr Ivan Federov, the exiled mayor of Melitopol who has become something of an unofficial spokesman for Ukrainian resistance in the region, estimated on Tuesday that about 500 locals in his home city alone had been detained and held by Russian forces.

His claim could not be independently verified, as Russia tightly controls access to occupied territories.

People living there regularly have their cellphones inspected by Russian forces at checkpoints and during searches of their homes, according to witnesses, making communication with outsiders exceedingly risky.

Mr Federov was himself kidnapped by Russian forces before being released, part of a pattern that has played out in towns and villages including Enerhodar. Mr Ivan Samoidyuk. the first deputy Mayor of Enerhodar, has now been in Russian custody for more than three months, according to Ukrainian officials.

As Russia steps up its repression, the Ukrainian government has promised a large counter-offensive and has told everyone who can flee occupied territories to leave before it begins.