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Ukraine nuclear workers recount abuse, threats from Russians

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Ukraine nuclear workers recount abuse, threats from Russians

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Alone in his apartment in the Russian-occupied city of Enerhodar in southeastern Ukraine, nuclear plant security guard Serhiy Shvets looked out his kitchen window in late May and saw gunmen approaching on the street below. When his buzzer rang, he was sure he was about to die.

Shvets, a former soldier in Ukraine’s military who was loyal to Kyiv, knew the gunmen would either kill or abduct and torture him. He thought briefly about recording a farewell to his family, who had fled to safety abroad, but instead lit a cigarette and grabbed his gun.

Six Russian soldiers broke down his door and opened fire, which he returned. Wounded in the hand, thigh, ear, and stomach, Shvets began to lose consciousness. Before he did, he heard the commander of the group tell his men to cease fire and call an ambulance.

Shvets, who survived the shooting, is among workers from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant recounting their fears of being abducted and tortured or killed by Russian forces occupying the facility and the city of Enerhodar. Ukrainian officials say the Russians have sought to intimidate the staff into keeping the plant running, through beatings and other abuse. but also to punish those who express support for Kyiv.

A GOOD LIFE BEFORE THE WAR

Life was good for employees of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant before the Russian invasion of Feb. 24. They were guaranteed a financially secure and stable life for their families.

And even though Ukraine still bears the psychological scars of the world’s worst atomic accident at Chernobyl in 1986, the Zaporizhzhia plant — Europe’s largest nuclear facility with its six reactors — provided jobs for about 11,000 people, making Enerhodar and its prewar population of 53,000 one of the wealthiest cities in the region.

But after Russia occupied the city early in the war, that once-comfortable life turned into nightmare.

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The invaders overran the ZNPP, about 6 kilometers (nearly 4 miles) from Enerhodar, but kept the Ukrainian staff in place to run it. Both sides accused the other of shelling the plant that damaged power lines connecting it to the grid, raising international alarm for its safety. Ukrainian officials say the Russians used the plant as a shield from which to fire shells on nearby towns.

Reports of intimidation of the staff and abductions began trickling out over the summer. Rafael Mariano Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s atomic watchdog, told The Associated Press about reports of violence between the Russians and the Ukrainian staff.

About 4,000 ZNPP workers fled. Those who stayed cited threats of kidnap and torture — underscored by the abduction Friday of plant director Ihor Murashov, who was seized and blindfolded by Russian forces on his way home from work.

He was freed Monday after being forced to make false statements on camera, according to Petro Kotin, head of Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear company. Kotin told AP Murashov was released at the edge of Russian-controlled territory and walked about 15 kilometers (9 miles) to Ukrainian-held areas.

“I would say it was mental torture,” Kotin said of what Murashov suffered. “He had to say that all the shelling on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant was made by Ukrainian forces and that he is a Ukrainian spy … in contact with Ukrainian special forces.”

Enerhodar’s exiled Mayor Dmytro Orlov, who spoke to Murashov after his release, said the plant official told him he had spent two days “in solitary confinement in the basement, with handcuffs and a bag on his head. His condition can hardly be called normal.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, described Murashov’s abduction as “yet another manifestation of absolutely uncovered Russian terror.”

‘TERRIBLE THINGS HAPPEN THERE’

More than 1,000 people, including plant workers, were abducted from Enohodar, although some have been released, estimated Orlov, who fled to Zaporizhzhia, the nearest city under Ukrainian control, after refusing to cooperate with the Russians. Kotin estimated that 100-200 remain abducted.

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Orlov said the first abduction was March 19, when Russians seized his deputy, Ivan Samoidiuk, whose whereabouts remains unknown. The abductions then accelerated, he said.

“Mostly, they took people with a pro-Ukrainian position, who were actively involved in the resistance movement,” he said.

Orlov alleged they were tortured at various locations in Enerhodar, including at the city’s police station, in basements elsewhere and even in the ZNPP itself.

“Terrible things happen there,” he said. “People who managed to come out say there was torture with electric currents, beatings, rape, shootings. … Some people didn’t survive.”

Similar sites were seen by AP journalists in parts of the Kharkiv region abandoned by Russian troops after a Ukrainian counteroffensive. In the city of Izium, an AP investigation uncovered 10 separate torture sites.

Plant worker Andriy Honcharuk died in a hospital July 3 shortly after the Russians released him, beaten and unconscious, for refusing to follow their orders at the facility, Orlov said.

Oleksii, a worker who said he was responsible for controlling the plant’s turbines and reactor compartment, fled Enerhodar in June when he learned Russian troops were looking for him. The 39-year-old asked not to be identified by his full name for fear of reprisal.

“It was psychologically difficult,” Oleksii told the AP in Kyiv. “You go to the station and see the occupiers there. You come to your workplace already depressed.”

Many plant employees “visited the basements” and were tortured there, he said.

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“Graves appeared in the forest that surrounds the city. That is, everyone understands that something horrible is happening,” he said. “They abduct people for their pro-Ukrainian position, or if they find any Telegram groups on their phone. This is enough for them to take a person away.”

Another employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety said he was unafraid of working at the plant amid shelling but decided to flee in September after colleagues were seized. He said Russians visited his home twice while he was away, and the possibility of torture was too much for him.

The plant’s last reactor was shut down in September to guard against a disaster from constant shelling that cut reliable external power supplies needed for cooling and other safety systems. Kotin said the company could restart two of the reactors in a matter of days to protect safety installations as winter approaches and temperatures drop.

But the power plant sits in one of four regions that Russia has moved to annex, making its future uncertain.

Kotin on Tuesday renewed his call for a “demilitarized zone” around the plant, where two IAEA experts are based.

‘FREEDOM OR DEATH’

For Serhiy Shvets, whose apartment was raided May 23, it was only a matter of time before the Russians came for him during the occupation of Enerhodar, he said. He had signed up to serve in Ukraine’s territorial defense forces shortly after the invasion and had sent his wife and other relatives abroad for safety.

He said the Russian forces who shot him called the ambulance “so I could die in the hospital.”

Doctors initially gave him a 5% chance of survival after he lost nearly two-thirds of his blood. But following several operations, he was well enough to leave Enerhodar in July and is living in Zaporizhzhia.

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Shvets, whose right hand is in a metal brace, quietly exhaled from pain as he moved it and said the only thing he regrets now is that he is too disabled to fight.

“I’m a descendant from Zaporozhian Cossacks,” he said, referring to his ancestors who lived on the territory of Ukraine from the 15th to 18th centuries and defended it from invaders. “There was no such thing as surrender for them — just freedom or death.”

He added: “Why would I want such a life if I don’t have my freedom?”

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Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverate of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

The patience of Memorial Day weekend travelers was tested Thursday by widespread delays across the country, but there were relatively few canceled flights, raising hopes that airlines can handle bigger crowds expected Friday.

By early evening on the East Coast, more than 6,000 flights had been delayed Thursday, with the biggest backups at the three major airports in the New York City area and Dallas-Fort Worth International.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

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Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday will be the busiest day for air travel over the holiday weekend, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints. It could rival the record of 2.9 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” said Aixa Diaz, a spokesperson for AAA.

When they aren’t waiting out flight delays, travelers are reporting sticker shock at the prices.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

 

 

 

 

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Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up … this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Meyers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

More travelers will be on the road. AAA estimates that 43.8 million people will venture at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home between Thursday and Monday, with 38 million of them taking vehicles.

 
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Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Airport unions are using the holiday weekend to highlight their demands.

About 100 workers who clean airplane cabins and drive trash trucks at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, started a 24-hour strike Thursday, demanding better pay and healthcare, according to the Service Employees International Union. About 15% of flights were delayed, but it was unclear whether the strike played any role.

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A planned strike at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was averted, however. Teamsters Local 553, which represents about 300 workers who refuel passenger and cargo jets at JFK, said that it reached a settlement with Allied Aviation Services and called off a walkout planned for Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

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“We are happy an agreement has been reached, a need for a strike averted, and we are hopeful that the deal will be ratified by our members,” said Demos Demopoulos, the secretary-treasurer of the local.

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Associated Press video journalist Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago and Associated Press radio reporter Shelley Adler in Washington contributed to this report.

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ health department has appointed an outspoken anti-abortion OB-GYN to a committee that reviews pregnancy-related deaths as doctors have been warning that the state’s restrictive abortion ban puts women’s lives at risk.

Dr. Ingrid Skop was among the new appointees to the Texas Maternal Morality and Morbidity Review Committee announced last week by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Her term starts June 1.

The committee, which compiles data on pregnancy-related deaths, makes recommendations to the Legislature on best practices and policy changes and is expected to assess the impact of abortion laws on maternal mortality.

Skop, who has worked as an OB-GYN for over three decades, is vice president and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research group. Skop will be the committee’s rural representative.

Skop, who has worked in San Antonio for most of her career, told the Houston Chronicle that she has “often cared for women traveling long distances from rural Texas maternity deserts, including women suffering complications from abortions.”

Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the U.S., and doctors have sought clarity on the state’s medical exemption, which allows an abortion to save a woman’s life or prevent the impairment of a major bodily function. Doctors have said the exemption is too vague, making it difficult to offer life-saving care for fear of repercussions. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion in Texas can face up to 99 years in prison and a $100,000 fine and lose their medical license.

Skop has said medical associations are not giving doctors the proper guidance on the matter. She has also shared more controversial views, saying during a congressional hearing in 2021 that rape or incest victims as young as 9 or 10 could carry pregnancies to term.

Texas’ abortion ban has no exemption for cases of rape or incest.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which says abortion is “inherently tied to maternal health,” said in a statement that members of the Texas committee should be “unbiased, free of conflicts of interest and focused on the appropriate standards of care.” The organization noted that bias against abortion has already led to “compromised” analyses, citing a research articles co-authored by Skop and others affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Earlier this year a medical journal retracted studies supported by the Charlotte Lozier Institute claiming to show harms of the abortion pill mifepristone, citing conflicts of interests by the authors and flaws in their research. Two of the studies were cited in a pivotal Texas court ruling that has threatened access to the drug.

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

A Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu — the second human case associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows.

The male worker had been in contact with cows at a farm with infected animals. He experienced mild eye symptoms and has recovered, U.S. and Michigan health officials said in announcing the case Wednesday.

A nasal swab from the person tested negative for the virus, but an eye swab tested Tuesday was positive for bird flu, “indicating an eye infection,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said.

The worker developed a “gritty feeling” in his eye earlier this month but it was a “very mild case,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive. He was not treated with oseltamivir, a medication advised for treating bird flu, she said.

The risk to the public remains low, but farmworkers exposed to infected animals are at higher risk, health officials said. They said those workers should be offered protective equipment, especially for their eyes.

Health officials say they do not know if the Michigan farmworker was wearing protective eyewear, but an investigation is continuing.

In late March, a farmworker in Texas was diagnosed in what officials called the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal. That patient reported only eye inflammation and recovered.

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species — including dogs, cats, skunks, bears and even seals and porpoises — in scores of countries.

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The detection in U.S. livestock earlier this year was an unexpected twist that sparked questions about food safety and whether it would start spreading among humans.

That hasn’t happened, although there’s been a steady increase of reported infections in cows. As of Wednesday, the virus had been confirmed in 51 dairy herds in nine states, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fifteen of the herds were in Michigan.

The CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah said the case was “not unexpected” and it’s possible more infections could be diagnosed in people who work around infected cows.

U.S. officials said they had tested 40 people since the first cow cases were discovered in late March. Michigan has tested 35 of them, Bagdasarian told The Associated Press in an interview.

Shah praised Michigan officials for actively monitoring farmworkers. He said health officials there have been sending daily text messages to workers exposed to infected cows asking about possible symptoms, and that the effort helped officials catch this infection. He said no other workers had reported symptoms.

That’s encouraging news, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who has studied bird flu for decades. There’s no sign to date that the virus is causing flu-like illness or that it is spreading among people.

“If we had four or five people seriously ill with respiratory illness, we would be picking that up,” he said.

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows, but government officials say pasteurized products sold in grocery stores are safe because heat treatment has been confirmed to kill the virus.

The new case marks the third time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered. That predated the virus’s appearance in cows.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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