‘Playing with fire’: UN warns team to inspect damage at Ukraine nuclear plant
- IAEA chief warns: ‘Playing with fire!’ after blasts
- Russia and Ukraine exchange blame for the shelling
- President Zelensky said that the eastern region was hit by heavy artillery
- “Heaviest fighting” in Donetsk region, Zelensky says
LONDON/LVIV, Ukraine, Nov. 21 (Reuters) – The head of UN nuclear watchdog warned that whoever fired artillery at Ukraine’s Zaporozhye nuclear power plant was “playing with fire” as his team prepared to inspect it on Monday for damage from weekend strikes.
The attacks on Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine came as battles are raging in the eastwhere Russian forces hit Ukrainian positions on the front line, President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
The shelling of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant follows setbacks by Russian forces in the Kherson region in the south and a Russian response that has included a barrage of missile strikes across the country, many of them on energy facilities.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said more than a dozen explosions rocked the nuclear plant late Saturday and into Sunday. The head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, said the attacks were extremely disturbing and completely unacceptable.
“Whoever is behind this needs to stop immediately. As I have said many times, you are playing with fire!” Grossi said in a statement.
Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for shelling the facility, as they have done repeatedly in recent months following attacks on or near it.
Citing information provided by plant management, an IAEA team on the ground said there was damage to some buildings, systems and equipment, but none of it was critical to nuclear safety and security.
The team plans to carry out an assessment on Monday, Grossi said, but Russian nuclear operator Rosenergoatom said there would be limits on what the team could inspect.
“If they want to inspect a facility that has nothing to do with nuclear safety, they will be denied access,” Renat Karchaa, adviser to the CEO of Rosenergoatom, told the TASS news agency.
Repeated shelling of the plant has raised concerns of a major accident just 500 km (300 miles) from the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
The Zaporizhia plant provided about a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity before the Russian invasion and was forced to operate with backup generators several times. It has six Soviet-designed VVER-1000 V-320 water-cooled, water-moderated reactors containing uranium 235.
The reactors are shut down, but there is a risk that the nuclear fuel will overheat if the cooling systems are cut off. The shelling repeatedly cuts power lines.
Russia’s defense ministry said Ukraine fired on power lines feeding the plant, but Ukrainian nuclear power firm Energoatom accused the Russian military of shelling the site, saying the Russians attacked infrastructure needed to restart parts of the plant in an attempt to further limit Ukraine’s electricity supply.
“THE MOST BITTER BATTLES”
In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces pounded Ukrainian frontline positions with artillery fire, with the heaviest attacks in the Donetsk region, Zelensky said in a video address.
Russia withdrew its forces from the southern city of Kherson this month and moved some of them to strengthen their positions in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, an industrial zone known as Donbas.
“The fiercest battles, as before, are in the Donetsk region. Although there were fewer attacks today due to worsening weather, the amount of Russian shelling unfortunately remains extremely high,” Zelensky said.
“In the Luhansk region, we are slowly moving forward as we fight. As of now, there have been almost 400 artillery attacks in the east since the beginning of the day,” he said.
The Ukrainian army in an early update on Monday confirmed heavy fighting over the past 24 hours, saying its forces had repelled Russian attacks in the Donetsk region, while Russian forces shelled the Luhansk region in the east and Kharkiv in the northeast.
In the south, Zelensky said troops were “consistently and very calculatedly destroying the potential of the occupiers,” but gave no details.
city of Kherson remains without electricity, water and heating.
Ukraine said on Saturday that approx 60 Russian soldiers were killed in a long-range artillery attack in the south, the second time in four days that Ukraine has claimed heavy casualties in a single incident.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Sunday that up to 50 Ukrainian servicemen had been killed the previous day along the southern front line in Donetsk and 50 elsewhere.
Reuters could not immediately verify any reports from the battlefield.
Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” its neighbor, although Kyiv and its allies say the invasion is an unprovoked war of aggression.
Oleg Zhdanov, a military analyst in Kyiv, said that according to his information, Russian offensives are taking place on the front lines of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka in Donetsk region, among others.
“The enemy is trying to break through our defenses, but to no avail,” Zhdanov said in a video on social media. “We fight back – they suffer huge losses.”
Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Caleb Davies in Gdansk and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna and Lydia Kelly in Melbourne; Written by Guy Faulconbridge, David Ljunggren and Sri Navaratnam; Editing by Robert Birsell
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