AP) - Mourners laid flowers and lit candles in gatherings across the former Soviet Union Monday to mark the 18th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which spread radiation over much of northern Europe. In all, 7 million people in the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are believed to have suffered physical or psychological injuries from the April 26, 1986, catastrophe, when reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded and caught fire.
An area roughly half the size 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.
In the capital Kiev, some 80 miles south of the Chernobyl plant, hundreds of Ukrainians on Monday filled the small chapel dedicated to the disaster's victims at 1:23 a.m. local time, the exact time of the explosion.
Later, they laid flowers and lit candles at a small hill where marble plaques inscribed with the names of hundreds of victims are laid.
And nearly 1,000 mourners gathered in the afternoon at Kiev's Chernobyl memorial, a soaring statue of five falling metallic swans. Some placed flowers and photos of deceased relatives at its base.
"Nothing can be compared with a mother's sorrow," said Praskoviya Nezhyvova, an elderly retiree clutching a black-framed photograph of her son, Viktor. She said he died of Chernobyl-related stomach cancer in 1990 at age 44.
Volodymyr Diunych, a driver who took members of the hastily recruited and inadequately equipped cleanup crews to the site, recalled watching as residents were evacuated "in an awful rush" days after the disaster.
Ukraine shuttered Chernobyl's last working reactor in December 2000.
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Mourners Mark Chernobyl's 18th Anniversary
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