Missile strike, bombing ahead of referendums on joining Russia

KYIV - Russian forces fired nine missiles into the city of Zaporizhzhia, hitting a hotel and a power station, ahead of referendums in Moscow-held territories on joining Russia that Ukraine and its allies have denounced as a "sham".

Zaporizhzhia's regional governor Oleksandr Starukh said at least one person died in the missile strike, with others trapped under rubble.

Zaporizhzhia is about 50km from a nuclear plant of the same name.

The head of the United Nations (UN) atomic agency said on Wednesday that he would not abandon a plan to create a protection zone around the plant despite Russian plans to mobilise new troops.

"Even in the worst of conditions, diplomacy should never stop. We can't throw our hands up and say, 'Look at what's being said, go away', and hope that something will happen to solve this situation," Mr Rafael Grossi, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

In the Russian-held southern city of Melitopol, also in the Zaporizhzhia region, a blast hit a crowded market.

The city's exiled mayor said three soldiers were killed.

He accused Russian forces of staging the attack so they could blame Ukraine for a purported act of terrorism.

But a member of the Russian-installed local administration accused Ukrainian special forces of trying to sow terror on the eve of the referendums.

Meanwhile, pro-Moscow regional leaders announced referendums on joining Russia from Friday until Sept 27 in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces - around 15 per cent of Ukrainian territory.

Moscow does not fully control any of the four regions it is apparently seeking to annex, with only around 60 per cent of Donetsk and 66 per cent of Zaporizhzhia regions held by its forces.

Ukraine extended its hold on recaptured north-eastern territory earlier this week as troops marched farther into areas abandoned by Russia, paving the way for a potential assault on occupation forces in the Donbas industrial heartland.

Russia and Ukraine carried out an unexpected prisoner swop on Wednesday, the largest since the war began, and involving almost 300 people including 10 foreigners.

Ukrainian politician and oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, a key ally of Mr Putin, was one of 55 people turned over to Russia in return for 215 Ukrainian prisoners, including 188 who held out for months against Russia's assault at the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol early in the war.

Five British citizens, two Americans and three other foreigners were also released as part of mediation efforts involving Saudi Arabia.

Briton Aiden Aislin, one of those whom Russian forces released, said from a plane in a video posted on social media: "We're now out of the danger zone and on our way home to our families."

He was sentenced to death by a court in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Donetsk.

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2022, with the headline Missile strike, bombing ahead of referendums on joining Russia. Subscribe