The U.N.’s chief nuclear watchdog warned Sunday morning that combatants are “playing with fire” amid new reports of shelling near Ukraine‘s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been occupied by invading Russian troops since March.
The Ukrainian managers of the plant told inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that there was new damage to the site’s building and equipment, but critical safety systems remain intact so far.
Powerful explosions near the plant, the largest nuclear power facility in Europe, were heard Saturday night into Sunday morning, according to Russia‘s official TASS news agency.
“The news from our team yesterday and this morning is extremely disturbing,” Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, said in a statement. “Explosions occurred at the site of this major nuclear power plant, which is completely unacceptable.”
“Whoever is behind this, it must stop immediately. As I have said many times before, you’re playing with fire!” Mr. Grossi said.
Once again, it was unclear who was responsible for the most recent shelling, with Russian and Ukrainian officials trading charges. The TASS report, which could not be verified, said 15 “Ukraine-fired shells” hit near Zaporizhzhia on Saturday but said no radioactive discharges were detected at the plant.
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But the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces had shelled about a dozen communities in the Zaporizhzhia region in southeastern Ukraine over the weekend.
With a Ukrainian counteroffensive having driven Russian forces into a defensive crouch in Ukraine’s south and east, the Kremlin has responded in recent weeks with a sustained bombing campaign targeting major cities and critical infrastructure such as power plants across the country.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told reporters Friday that nearly half of Ukraine’s energy system was down because the strikes, the Kyiv Independent reported.
The IAEA in its statement said its monitors near the site reported hearing more than a dozen blasts on Sunday morning, adding that the IAEA team could see some explosions from their office windows.
The IAEA has tried unsuccessfully to establish a cease-fire zone around the utility, which has been forced repeatedly to rely on back-up generators to keep the nuclear reactors operating after it was cut off from the local power system during the nearly nine-month invasion.
Separately, a key adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy appealed again for more Western arms to turn back the Russian invasion, and rejected rising suggestions that Kyiv consider renewed cease-fire talks with Russia as the winter approaches.
The Kremlin’s top spokesman said last week that the ramped-up Russian bombing campaign was a result of the Zelenskyy government’s “unwillingness to negotiate.”
Mykhailo Podolyak told the Agence France-Presse news agency that it would be “bizarre” for Kyiv to propose peace negotiations at a time when its forces are making steady gains on the battlefield.
And in Poland, the second of two men killed in a missile originally thought to have been fired by Russia last week was buried Sunday. NATO and Polish officials later said the strike near the Ukraine border was probably a Ukrainian defensive missile that went astray trying to shoot down a Russian drone.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.