Russian forces have pounded Ukrainian towns across the river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, officials said, while reports of shelling around the facility fuelled fears of a radiation disaster.
Captured by Russian troops in March but run by Ukrainian staff, Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, has been a major hotspot in the six-month conflict with both sides trading blame for recent shelling near the plant.
Russian forces fired at Enerhodar, the city where the plant is located, the chief of staff of Ukraine‘s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said late on Sunday on his Telegram channel alongside a video of fire fighters dousing burning cars.
“They provoke and try to blackmail the world,” chief of staff Andriy Yermak said.
Russian forces also kept up their shelling in the Donbas, Ukraine‘s industrial heartland in the east, officials there said.
Zelenskiy, in his nightly address on Sunday, vowed “the occupiers will feel their consequences – in the further actions of our defenders”.
“No terrorist will be left without an answer for attacks on our cities. Zaporizhzhia, Orykhiv, Kharkiv, Donbas – they will receive an answer for all of them,” he said.
Since Russian troops poured over the Ukrainian border in February in what Russian President Vladimir Putin termed a “special military operation,” the conflict has settled into a war of attrition fought primarily in the east and south of Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department said on Sunday that Russia did not want to acknowledge the grave radiological risk at the south Ukraine plant and had blocked a draft agreement on nuclear non-proliferation because it mentioned such risk.
The United Nations and Ukraine have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the plant to ensure it is not a target.
However, Russia’s defence ministry reported more Ukrainian shelling at the plant over the weekend.
Nine shells fired by the Ukrainian artillery landed in the plant’s grounds, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
“At present, full-time technical personnel are monitoring the technical condition of the nuclear plant and ensuring its operation. The radiation situation in the area of the nuclear power plant remains normal,” he said in a statement.
As fears mount of a nuclear accident in a country still haunted by the Chernobyl disaster, Zaporizhzhia authorities are handing out iodine tablets and teaching residents how to use them in case of a radiation leak.
Ukrainian nuclear company Energoatom said it had no new information about attacks on the plant and Reuters could not verify the accounts.
Regional governor Oleksandr Starukh said on Telegram on Sunday that Russian forces struck residential buildings in the main city of Zaporizhzhia, about a two-hour drive from the plant, and the town of Orikhiv further east.
Ukraine‘s military reported shelling of nine more towns in the area on the opposite side of the Dnipro river, while the Russian state news agency cited authorities as saying they had downed a Ukrainian drone which planned to attack the nuclear-waste storage facility at the plant.
The International Atomic Energy Agency is waiting for clearance for its officials to visit the plant, which the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog has said should be “very, very close”. Two of the plant’s reactors were cut off from the electrical grid last week due to shelling.
PUSH FOR SANCTIONS
Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine touched off Europe’s most devastating conflict since World War Two.
Thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced and cities blasted to ruins. The war has also threatened the global economy with an energy and food supply crisis.
Russian shelling has displaced more civilians in the east, where three quarters of the population has fled the front-line region of Donetsk, the regional governor has said.
Ukrainian police said Russian forces shelled five areas in Donetsk on Sunday.
The United States and its allies have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia for its invasion and sent billions of dollars in security assistance to the Ukrainian government.
Russia has said sanctions will never make it change its position on Ukraine and Western arms supplies only drag out the conflict.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba will travel to Sweden and Czech Republic this week and push for more sanctions on Russia, including an EU-wide visa ban for Russians.
European Union foreign ministers meeting this week are unlikely to unanimously back a visa ban on all Russians, EU foreign policy chief told Austria’s ORF TV.