Russian artillery fired at Ukrainian towns across the river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant overnight, local officials said on Sunday, adding to residents' anguish as reports of shelling around the plant fueled fears of a radiation disaster.
Russia's defense ministry said there was more Ukrainian shelling of the plant over the past 24 hours, just a day after Moscow and Kyiv traded accusations of targeting Europe's biggest nuclear plant, which has prompted grave international concern.
Ukrainian nuclear company Energoatom said it had no new information about attacks on the plant.
Captured by Russian troops in March, but still run by Ukrainian staff, the complex on the southern front line of the war has been one of the major hotspots in the six-month conflict.
The US State Department said in a statement on Sunday that Moscow did not want to acknowledge the grave radiological risk at the Zaporizhzhia plant and had blocked a draft agreement on nuclear non-proliferation because it mentioned such risk.
Regional governor Oleksandr Starukh said on Telegram on Sunday that Russian forces struck residential buildings in the region's main city of Zaporizhzhia, about a two-hour drive from the plant, and the town of Orikhiv further east.
On Saturday, Starukh told Ukrainian television that residents were being taught how to use iodine in case of a radiation leak.
Ukraine's military reported shelling of nine more towns in the area on the opposite side of the Dnipro river from the plant in its daily report, while the Russian RIA news agency quoted the Russian defense ministry as saying its air force struck a Motor Sich plant in the region where helicopters were repaired.
Russian authorities said they had downed a Ukrainian drone which planned to attack the nuclear-waste storage facility at the plant, according to RIA.
Reuters could not verify those reports.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said nine shells fired by the Ukrainian artillery in two separate attacks landed in the nuclear plant's grounds.
“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.
The United Nations and Kyiv have called for a withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the plant to ensure it is not a target.
Continent at risk
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Russian forces had turned the plant into a military base, putting the whole continent at risk, and had no business being there.
“Russian military must get out of the plant,” he said on Twitter.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is waiting for clearance for its officials to visit the plant, which the head of the UN nuclear watchdog said on Thursday should be “very, very close”. Two of the plant's reactors were cut off from the electrical grid last week due to shelling.
On Ukraine's eastern front, Ukrainian forces halted the latest Russian attempt to advance on the city of Sloviansk in Donetsk province, Kyiv's military said in its daily report.
Ukrainian troops also repelled Russian attempts to attack in three directions, including in the area of Bakhmut and the coal-producing town of Avdiivka, it added in an afternoon update.
Having taken Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk weeks ago, Moscow's forces have focused on Bakhmut in their push to extend control over the Donbas region. According to regional governors, Sloviansk and the city of Kramatorsk, also in Donetsk province, were shelled by Russian forces overnight, but there were no reports of new casualties.
Reuters could not verify those accounts.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted that both the Donbas region and the city of Donetsk in the past had celebrated annual holidays in the last weekend of August. “Ukraine will never forget anything,” he said in his nightly video address.
President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Russia's neighbor on Feb. 24, saying a “special operation” was needed to demilitarize the country and remove perceived security threats to Russia.
Ukraine and the West have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for an imperialist war of conquest that has killed thousands, displaced millions, turned cities to rubble and threatened the global economy with an energy and food supply crisis, sending prices soaring.
Ukraine's foreign ministry said Kuleba would travel to Sweden on Monday followed by a trip to the Czech Republic on Tuesday as part of Kyiv's efforts to cement international support for Ukraine and push for more sanctions pressure on Russia.
In Prague, he will attend an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers that will discuss new sanctions on Moscow and an EU-wide visa ban for Russians. Zelenskyy called for such a ban earlier this month, but so far it has found support mainly from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland, which all share a border with Russia.