The Russian-backed governor of the Ukrainian region where Europe’s largest nuclear plant is located reportedly ordered civilian evacuations, including from the city where most plant workers live.
Yegeny Balitsky, the Moscow-installed governor of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia province, on Friday ordered civilians to leave 18 Russian-occupied communities, including Enerhodar, home to most of the staff at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. The move suggested that fighting in the area would intensify.
Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, meanwhile, said Russia prompted a “mad panic” from the city near the contested plant, thousands of cars departed causing five-hour traffic delays, the BBC reported.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi has spent months trying to persuade Russian and Ukrainian officials to establish a security zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to prevent the war from causing a radiation leak. Grossi said the evacuation of civilians suggested a further escalation.
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“The general situation in the area near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” Grossi warned Saturday. “We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequences for the population and the environment. This major nuclear facility must be protected.”
More than 1,500 people had been evacuated from two unspecified cities in the region as of Sunday, Balitsky said. The Ukrainian General Staff confirmed the evacuation of Enerhodar was underway, the Associated Press reported.
Moscow’s troops seized the plant soon after invading Ukraine last year, but Ukrainian employees have continued to run it during the occupation, at times under extreme duress.
Ukraine has regularly fired at the Russian side of the lines, while Russia has repeatedly shelled Ukrainian-held communities across the Dnieper River. The fighting has intensified as Ukraine prepares to launch a long-promised counteroffensive to reclaim ground taken by Russia.
In a Sunday morning update, the Ukrainian military said Russian forces were also evacuating local Russian passport-holders to the port city of Berdyansk and the town Prymorsk, both on the coast of the Sea of Azov, Reuters reported.
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“The first to be evacuated are those who accepted Russian citizenship in the first months of the occupation,” the statement from Ukraine’s General staff said.
Although none of the plant’s six reactors are operating because of the war, the station needs a reliable power supply for cooling systems essential to preventing a potentially catastrophic radiation disaster.
Analysts have for months pointed to the southern Zaporizhzhia region as one of the possible targets of Ukraine’s expected spring counteroffensive, speculating that Kyiv’s forces might try to choke off Russia’s “land corridor” to the Crimean Peninsula and split Russian forces in two by pressing on to the Azov Sea coast.
Balitsky said Ukraine’s forces had intensified attacks on the area in the past several days.
Some of the fiercest ongoing fighting is in the eastern city of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces are still clinging to a position on the western outskirts despite Russia trying to take the city for more than nine months.
Russian paramilitary group Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Sunday that his fighters would continue their efforts in Bakhmut, reversing course from his earlier threat made in a viral video with dead bodies in the background that he and his men would withdraw from the region if Moscow did not send more ammunition, Politico reported.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said Sunday that Moscow’s forces had captured two more districts in the city’s west and northwest, but provided no further details.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian military shared drone footage in alleging that Russia used phosphorus munitions in its attack against the besieged city of Bakhmut. The BBC reported that while white phosphorus weapons are not banned, “their use in civilian areas is considered a war crime.”
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In a statement on its website Sunday, Russia’s Federal Security Service said it obstructed Ukrainian intelligence’s attempt to attack a military airfield in central Russia with drones filled with explosives.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.