KYIV, UKRAINE (AFP) – Ukraine’s atomic energy agency accused Russia of using Europe’s largest nuclear power plant to store weapons and shell the surrounding regions of Nikopol and Dnipro that were hit on Saturday (July 16).
Petro Kotin, president of Ukrainian nuclear agency Energoatom, called the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant “extremely tense” with up to 500 Russian soldiers controlling the plant.
The plant in south-east Ukraine has been under Russian control since the early weeks of Moscow’s invasion, though it is still operated by Ukrainian staff.
“The occupiers bring their machinery there, including missile systems, from which they already shell the other side of the river Dnipro and the territory of Nikopol,” he said in a Ukrainian television interview broadcast on Friday.
On Saturday, Russian missiles struck residential buildings in the city of Nikopol, killing two people, Dnipro regional governor Valentin Reznichenko said.
The IAEA has said it needs to visit the plant to conduct essential maintenance work.
Kyiv has opposed such a visit, with Energoatom declaring that an IAEA trip to the plant would only legitimise its occupation by "nuclear terrorists".
On Thursday, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi once again stressed the importance of "being able to travel to the (Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant) to conduct essential safety, security and safeguards activities", according to a statement.
He also "reiterated his growing concern about the severe and challenging conditions facing staff at the ZNPP and the impact of such conditions on the safety and security of the plant".
The agency has not been able to visit the plant since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24.
In the north-east region around Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv on Saturday, governor Oleg Synegubov said an overnight Russian missile attack killed three people in the town of Chuhuiv.
In the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, officials said the death toll rose to 24 from Russian strikes after a woman died of her injuries in hospital Saturday. Ukraine said three children were among the dead.
“Sixty-eight people continue treatment, including four children. Four people are still missing,” said Vinnytsia district chief Sergiy Borzov.
Outpouring of grief for four-year-old
President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the Russians of aiming to “cause maximum damage to Ukrainian cities”.
“I’m urging you, once again: please don’t ignore the air raid signals now,” he said in his daily address on Friday.
Russia claimed the strikes in Vinnytsia – hundreds of kilometres away from front-line fighting – had killed Ukrainian military officials and foreign arms suppliers.
But Ukraine said the dead included four-year-old Liza Dmitrieva, who had Down’s syndrome and whose death spurred an outpouring of grief after footage of her final moments alive went viral on social media.
Liza’s mother is in a “critical” condition after surgery.
The missile strikes on Vinnytsia were the latest attacks to carry a heavy civilian toll and came less than a week after strikes on Chasiv Yar in the Donetsk region left nearly 50 dead.
Leaning on her cane, Olga Dekanenko walks through the rubble and debris of her home in Konstantinovka, an industrial town on the front line in the east, that was heavily damaged in a Russian strike early on Saturday.
Dekanenko was asleep when it happened. Her small bedroom overlooks the garden where the rocket landed. She woke up on the ground, covered in a mess of blankets, pillows and stones.
“We’re alive, it’s a good day,” 67-year-old Dekanenko tells AFP with a tired smile.
‘Clearing’ Donbas town
Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 and the conflict has killed thousands of people, destroyed cities and forced millions to flee their homes.
A two-day meeting of finance ministers from the Group of 20 major economies looked for solutions to the food and energy crises caused by the war but the gathering ended Saturday in Indonesia without a joint communique after the conflict divided the global forum.
Observers said the failure to agree on a joint communique would hinder coordinated efforts to solve rising inflation and food shortages.
The heaviest fighting has recently focused on the industrial Donbas region in the east, where grinding trench battles and artillery duels are morphing into a war of attrition.
Britain said on Friday the Kremlin “must bear the full responsibility” for the death of a British captive in east Ukraine.
“I am shocked to hear reports of the death of British aid worker Paul Urey while in the custody of a Russian proxy in Ukraine,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
Moscow-backed separatists said on Friday they were closing in on their next target, Siversk, after wresting control of sister cities Lysychansk and Severodonetsk about 30km to its east.
Russia’s defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Saturday strikes targeted Ukrainian soldiers in a brigade that “operated in the Siversk direction”.
And Donetsk separatist official Daniil Versonov said rebel fighters were “clearing” eastern districts of Siversk in small groups.
Ukraine has repeatedly urged allies to supply it with advanced, long-range precision artillery systems that would allow it to target Russian forces deeper inside Ukrainian-held territory.
Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Friday that Ukraine had taken delivery of its first batch of sophisticated M270 rocket systems, adding to a growing arsenal of Western-supplied artillery Kyiv says is changing dynamics on the battlefield.