Chernobyl -- the world remembers
KIEV, Ukraine -- Ceremonies have been held throughout the former Soviet Union to mark the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
The accident, on April 26, 1986, contaminated wide areas of Europe and resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 people.
In a separate ceremony in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II prayed for the victims of the tragedy, which has left one in 16 of the Ukrainian population with serious health problems.
"The pope embraces you," he told a gathering of Chernobyl children who had been flown to Italy for the occasion. "Today we must all remember that terrible tragedy."
The pontiff, who is due to visit the Ukraine himself in June, went on to say that "all our thoughts return to April 26, 1986, when in the middle of the night a tremendous explosion occurred in the nuclear power plant."
He prayed that future generations "will live without fear of similar threats."
In the Ukraine, a memorial service was held late on Wednesday night in the chapel built to commemorate the event in central Kiev.
Hundreds of worshippers attended the ceremony, holding candles while priests recited prayers for the dead.
At 1.23am local time (2000 GMT Wednesday), exactly 15 years after the explosion that sparked the disaster, the chapel bell tolled. Many worshippers wept.
Similar services were held in the Ukrainian town of Slavutych, where most of those who worked at the Chernobyl plant lived, and at the Mitino cemetery in Moscow, Russia, where many of the firefighters who died in the disaster are buried.
"We have come here for 15 years, and will come with my husband so long as we have our health," said Valentyna Lopatiuk, whose son, a firefighter, died from radiation poisoning.
In Belarus, meanwhile, hundreds of people attended a rally in the capital Minsk to remember the dead and injured.
Worst nuclear disaster in history
The disaster, the worst nuclear accident ever, began during testing of one of the four RBMK reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 80 miles (129 kilometres) north-west of Kiev.
An explosion blew off the reactor's steel and concrete casing and led to a gradual reactor melt-down.
Over the next few days a vast radioactive cloud spread over much of Europe, causing massive environmental damage to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
Thirty people were killed in the initial explosion, while a further 4,000 died of radioactive-related illnesses after participating in the hasty and badly-organised clean-up operation.
Another 70,000 people involved in the clean-up operation have been disabled. Altogether around five million people were exposed to nuclear radiation.
The effects of the disaster are still being felt today. According to the Ukraine Health Ministry 400,000 adults and 1.1 million children are entitled to state aid for illnesses contracted as a result of the disaster.
Levels of cancer in Ukraine and Belarus, especially thyroid cancer, are abnormally high, with experts predicting that the incidence of cancer and other disabling diseases will continue to rise for at least another 30 years.
Following the explosion the reactor involved -- Reactor No. 4 -- was encased in a huge steel and concrete sarcophagus to prevent any more radiation leaking out.
The sarcophagus, which has been crumbling for many years, is now the focus of a $758 million (£527 million) project to repair and strengthen it.
The plant's other three reactors continued operating until December 2000, when the last one was closed down.
In a speech on Thursday in the town of Slavutych, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said: "The Chernobyl atomic power plant has been closed down, but human calamities and problems born by the disaster remain."
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