Ukraine, Russia blame threat of nuclear disaster at trade-leading plant

  • Both sides blame the bombings at a Russian-controlled nuclear power plant
  • UN to demilitarized zone
  • Zelensky demands that Russia return the plant to Ukraine
  • Ukrainian cities on the opposite bank under Russian bombardment
  • Satellite images show damage to Russian air base in Crimea

KYIV, Aug 12 (Reuters) – Ukraine and Russia on Friday accused Russia of risking a nuclear holocaust by shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant occupied by Russian forces in a region expected to become one of the war’s next major battlefronts.

Western countries have called on Moscow to withdraw its forces from the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, and the United Nations called on Thursday to declare it a demilitarized zone. But there is no sign yet that Russia has agreed to withdraw its forces from the area it captured in March.

The plant dominates the southern bank of a vast reservoir of the Dnipro River that cuts across southern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces controlling towns and cities on the opposite bank have come under intense bombardment from Russian control.

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Three civilians, including a boy, were wounded in overnight shelling of one of those towns, said Valentyn Reznichenko, the governor of Marhanets, Dnipropetrovsk region, the latest in a string of similar reports.

Kiev has said for weeks that it was planning a counteroffensive to recapture Zaporizhia and neighboring Kherson provinces, the largest swath of territory Russia has seized since the February 24 invasion. Moscow has appointed regional officials who say they will hold a vote on joining Russia.

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Ukraine’s Energoatom agency, whose workers still operate the plant under Russian occupation, said the power plant was hit five times on Thursday near where radioactive material is stored. Both sides blamed each other for the bombings and Reuters could not verify either account.

Russia says Ukraine fired recklessly at the plant. Kyiv says Russian troops attacked it themselves and are using the plant as a shield while bombing nearby Ukrainian towns and cities.

“Ukrainian armed forces will not damage the infrastructure (of the plant), do not strike where there is a global risk. We understand that the invaders are hiding behind such a shield because it cannot be attacked there,” Natalya Humenyuk, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command, told Ukrainian national television.

Russia has veto power in the UN. The Security Council met on Thursday to discuss the situation. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on both sides to end all fighting near the plant.

“The facility should not be used as part of any military operation. Rather, an urgent agreement at the technical level is needed for a secure perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the security of the area,” Guterres said in a statement.

At the Security Council meeting, the US supported the call for a demilitarized zone and urged the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the site. read more

Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the world was being pushed “to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe” on a scale comparable to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine. He said IAEA officials could visit the site as soon as this month.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded that Russia return the plant to Ukrainian control.

“Only the full withdrawal of the Russians … and the restoration of full Ukrainian control of the situation around the station can guarantee the resumption of nuclear security across Europe,” he said in a video address.

France echoed Zelensky’s demand and said Russia’s occupation of the base would endanger the world.

“The presence and activities of the Russian armed forces near the plant significantly increase the risk of an accident with catastrophic consequences,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

Catastrophe on the Russian site

The main Ukrainian front lines have been relatively stable in recent weeks, but fighting has intensified recently in anticipation of what Ukraine says is a planned counteroffensive in the south.

Ukraine’s civil service reported on Friday widespread shelling and airstrikes by Russian forces on numerous towns and military bases, particularly in the east, where Russia is trying to expand its territory on behalf of separatist proxies.

In the last 24 hours, 7 civilians were killed and 14 wounded, the governor of eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrilenko, said in a telegram.

By acquiring new missiles capable of striking Russian logistics deep behind the front lines, Kiev hopes it can turn the tide of the conflict in the coming weeks.

Satellite images released on Thursday showed devastation at an air base deep in Russia-aligned Crimea that was hit in some form of attack on Tuesday, although Kyiv did not claim responsibility or explain how it was carried out.

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Images from independent satellite company Planet Labs showed three nearly identical craters in buildings at Russia’s Sagi Air Base. The base, on Crimea’s southwest coast, suffered extensive fire damage with at least eight destroyed fighter jets visible.

Russia has denied the plane was damaged and said the explosions at the base were accidental. Kyiv has neither confirmed nor denied any role in the blasts, but the initial explosions occurred simultaneously hundreds of meters apart, seemingly ruling out an accident.

The site is beyond the range of advanced U.S. rockets used by Ukraine since last month.

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Additional reporting by Reuters; Written by Peter Graff; Editing by Philippa Fletcher

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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