United Nations inspectors in Ukraine were due on Thursday to visit a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, where nearby shelling has prompted bitter recriminations and global fears of disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission arrived in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, 55 km (34 miles) away from the plant, on Wednesday and Ukraine’s defense ministry said it was scheduled to visit the facility on Thursday.
Although Russian-installed officials suggested the team would have only one day to inspect the site, the IAEA was preparing for longer.
“If we are able to establish a permanent presence or a continued presence, then it’s going to be prolonged. But this first segment is going to take a few days,” the organization’s chief, Rafael Grossi, told reporters in Zaporizhzhia.
“It’s a mission that seeks to prevent a nuclear accident,” he added.
But while Ukraine sees the inspection as a step toward “deoccupying and demilitarizing” the location, Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now, setting up the potential for further rancor.
“If they (the IAEA) draw up a report about violations and give it to Ukraine to fix them, we won’t be able to do that as long as the Russian military is there,” said Ukraine’s energy minister, German Galushchenko.
Russia captured the nuclear plant in early March and its military force has been there ever since, as has most of the Ukrainian workforce who have toiled to continue running the facility, which had supplied 20% of Ukraine’s electricity.
Fighting was reported near the power station and further afield on Wednesday, with both sides claiming battlefield successes amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive to recapture southern territory.
“It is a very slow process, because we value people,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “There will be no quick success.”
Ukraine repelled Russian attempts to attack in the direction of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, two towns located north of the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk, its armed forces’ general staff said on Wednesday.
Pro-Moscow troops have focused on Bakhmut in their push to extend control over the Donbas region, it said.
Russia, which says it is waging a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of nationalists and protect Russian-speaking communities, has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.
Reuters could not independently verify battlefield details.
Away from Ukraine, Estonia announced plans to stop most Russians from entering the country within weeks, if possible acting in concert with its regional partners, after the EU was too divided to agree on a blanket ban.
“If something happens to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, there will be no point in talking about visas, passports or borders,” said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
For weeks now, Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of endangering the Zaporizhzhia plant’s safety with artillery or drone strikes, risking a Chornobyl-style radiation disaster.
Kyiv says Russia has been using the plant as a shield to hit towns and cities, knowing it will be hard for Ukraine to return fire. It has also accused Russian forces of shelling the plant.
The Russian defense ministry has said that radiation levels at the plant are normal.
Russia has denied Ukrainian assertions of reckless behaviour, questioning why it would shell a facility where its own troops are garrisoned as what it calls a security detail.
Moscow has accused the Ukrainians of targeting the plant to try to generate international outrage that Kyiv hopes will result in a demilitarized zone.
The IAEA’s Grossi said such a status was a political matter for the countries engaged in the conflict.
Russia had said it welcomed the IAEA’s stated intention to set up a permanent mission at the plant but the head of the Russian-installed administration in the area told Interfax the inspectors “must see the work of the station in one day.”
The plant is close to the front lines and Ukraine’s armed forces on Wednesday accused Russia of shelling in the area and of preparing to resume an offensive there. There was no immediate comment from Moscow.
Russia captured large tracts of southern Ukraine close to the Black Sea coast in the early weeks of the over six-month-old war, including in the Kherson region, which lies north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine sees recapturing the region as crucial to preventing Russian attempts to seize more territory farther west that could eventually cut off its access to the Black Sea.
It urged citizens in Crimea to reveal where Moscow’s troops were living and who among the local population was collaborating.
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