Bombing of nuclear power plant raises alarm as war escalates in eastern Ukraine

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Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for bombings near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Monday, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that the weekend shelling was ‘dangerously close’ to hitting the main safety and security systems.

Such back-and-forths to determine who is creating danger around the plant, which is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and is located in territory occupied by Russian military forces, have occurred regularly over the past four month. But the familiar recriminations come at a new stage in the war, with Russia reeling from a series of battlefield defeats, and an emboldened Ukraine considering the possibility of a new offensive that could move south. to occupied Melitopol from the city of Zaporizhzhia.

Such a move would force the Ukrainians to break through the fortified Russian defences, but could also cut off the Russian forces protecting the nuclear power plant, located at Enerhodar, at the crook of a bend in the Dnieper.

For months, sporadic shelling near the plant sparked international fears of a radioactive disaster. The IAEA sent inspection teams to check the factory and requested the creation of a security zone around it.

The director general of the agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, on Monday called for an end to the attacks.

“Whoever bombs the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant takes enormous risks and gambles with the lives of many people,” Grossi said in a statement. He renewed his call for the establishment of the security protection zone around the facility, saying the international community “must do everything in its power” to prevent a possible nuclear catastrophe.

The IAEA said it was sending a team to inspect damage from the latest bombardment.

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Grossi’s warning came after Alexei Likhachev, director general of Russia’s state atomic energy agency, Rosatom, said on Monday that “the plant is at risk of a nuclear accident. We were in negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency all night.

In violation of international law, Russia has claimed annexation of the Zaporizhzhia region, including Enerhodar and the nuclear power plant, even though it does not control the regional capital, also called Zaporizhzhia. In recent days, Russian troops have been forced to retreat and abandon Kherson, the only regional capital they have managed to occupy since the invasion began in February — and which Russia also illegally claimed annexed.

Speaking on the sidelines of an event in Sochi, Russia, Likhachev said there were “at least 30 strikes” by Ukraine over the weekend.

“The spent nuclear fuel storage facility, the special building and the transportation routes were hit, and the standby diesel generators were damaged,” Likhachev said.

For months, Ukrainian factory workers had kept the plant running under the control of occupation troops, but since President Vladimir Putin claimed annexation in late September, Rosatom has asserted authority. direct.

Ukraine has repeatedly cited the risk of a nuclear accident as the reason for international pressure to force Russia to withdraw. The weekend shelling shattered several weeks of relative calm around the nuclear power plant, as Russian and Ukrainian forces focused on battles elsewhere.

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Russia accused Ukrainian forces of bombing the plant from across the Dnieper. In a statement released on Monday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called on the IAEA to demand that Ukrainian authorities stop bombing the plant.

Ukraine has accused the Russians of shelling the area themselves, even though Russian troops are stationed there. Zaporizhzhia Governor Oleksandr Starukh told Ukrainian media that Russia was carrying out “a systematic and targeted attack that jeopardizes nuclear security”.

As each side adapts to the redesigned battlefield map, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the “fiercest battles” currently underway are taking place in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. . Zelensky said Russia launched 400 strikes on targets across the region on Sunday.

“Little by little we are moving forward in the battles,” Zelensky said. “We hold the line, consistently and very calculatedly destroying the potential of the occupants.”

In recent days, intensified fighting has been reported near the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian mercenary group Wagner is waging a long campaign to capture the town, although military experts say the fight had little strategic value.

Pro-Moscow Telegram channels reported on Monday that heavy fighting continued in the city’s suburbs, while Zvezda, a TV channel run by Russia’s Defense Ministry, said Russian troops had inflicted heavy casualties. to Ukrainian forces.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff, meanwhile, claimed to have repelled the Russian attacks.

Ukraine faces tougher fight to extend battlefield victories

Shelling has also been reported in southern and eastern Ukraine, with at least four civilians killed and eight injured in the regions of Kherson, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk in the past 24 hours, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, chief deputy of the Ukrainian presidential office.

Ukraine’s nearly nine-month war shows no sign of abating as winter approaches and both sides seem to be preparing for the fight ahead.

Several regions in Ukraine are struggling to restore power lines after Russian bombings targeting crucial infrastructure left many towns without power and blackouts.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has insisted the bombing of infrastructure was for military purposes, although experts say there is little evidence to support this position.

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On Monday, Peskov, responding to a reporter’s question, said Russia was not seeking to overthrow the Ukrainian government.. The question in Peskov stems from comments by a Russian lawmaker, Konstantin Kosachev, who told a government-owned newspaper that normalization of relations between Moscow and Kyiv could only take place “after a change of power in Ukraine”.

The issue of regime change has been at the center of a back-and-forth between Russia, Ukraine and its allies over possible peace talks: The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration had asked officials of Kyiv to drop their public refusal to engage in peace talks unless Putin is impeached.

Zelensky’s previous demands to sit down with Putin have been repeatedly rebuffed, a demand from either side for regime change as a precondition for talks would be a no-start at this stage. Polls show that every president still enjoys relatively high public support, although it is difficult to gauge public opinion in Russia, where criticism of the governor or the war can lead to prosecution and imprisonment.

Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.

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