Hundreds of mourners laid flowers and lit candles early Tuesday before a monument in Ukraine's capital to mark the 19th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which spewed radiation over much of northern Europe and claimed thousands of lives.
As the country slept on April 26, 1986, a test at the then-Soviet Chernobyl nuclear power station went horribly wrong, causing Reactor No. 4 to explode and catch fire.
"The Chernobyl plant that was regarded as Ukraine's pride has become a symbol of the biggest ever man-made disaster," the plant's management said in a statement Tuesday, a day that is now observed worldwide as a memorial to victims of radiation catastrophes.
An area roughly half the size of the U.S. state of Colorado was contaminated by the accident, forcing the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people and ruining some of Europe's most fertile farmland.
Ukraine has registered 4,400 deaths. In all, 7 million people in the former Soviet republic's of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered health problems. Many were the firefighters, cleanup workers, soldiers and scientists sent in to help deal with the tragedy.
"They protected us like heroes of war," said Ganna Romanova, 75, a survivor of the disaster. "We must not forget them and we must tell our children about their feat."
In Kiev, some 128 kilometers (80 miles) south of the Chernobyl plant, hundreds of Ukrainians filled a small chapel dedicated to the disaster's victims at 1:23 a.m. (2223 GMT Monday) as bells tolled 19 times to mark the exact time of the explosion.
Many victims have complained that their governments are doing too little to help them. In the Russian city of Novovoronezh, some 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of Moscow, a group of Chernobyl victims launched a new hunger strike, saying that recent social reforms stripped them of some necessary benefits, Russia's NTV reported. Specialists from Novovoronezh's nuclear power plant were dispatched to Chernobyl to help after the accident.
The most frequent Chernobyl-related diseases include thyroid, blood and other cancers.
Yuriy Andreev, the head of the Chernobyl Union, an action group that represents victims said that the Ukrainian government has decreased funds for victims every year.
"In 1992, we were receiving 12 percent of (national) budget expenses, in 2000 - 3.3 percent and in 2005 only 2.3 percent," he said. Similar complaints have been made in Belarus, whose authoritarian leader has even encouraged farming to resume in areas near contamination zones.
Ukraine shut down Chernobyl's last working reactor in December 2000, but the decommissioning works continue. A Russian-Ukrainian consortium has recently started reinforcing the crumbling concrete-and-steel shelter hastily constructed over the damaged reactor. Meanwhile, the price tag for building a new shelter has increased by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Cash shortages continue to raise concern. Last week, the state-run company responsible for maintaining the site and decommissioning the plant warned it is facing a dangerous cutoff of energy supplies due to a debt of US$6 million (€4.6 million) in unpaid bills for gas, electricity and overdue wages.
Also Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko urged investigators to scrutinize "enormously big sums" paid to consultants and experts for environmental safety work at Chernobyl. Prosecutors have already launched on criminal case against an unidentified person for alleged misappropriation of funds.
ALEKSANDAR VASOVIC, Associated Press Writer