United Nations inspectors arrived in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday on a mission to prevent an accident at a nearby Russian-occupied nuclear power plant and try to stabilize the situation after weeks of shelling in the surrounding area. .
A Reuters reporter following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team in a convoy from the capital Kyiv said the inspectors arrived in Zaporizhzhia, where they were likely to spend the night before visiting the plant, which is in Russian-controlled territory on Thursday. .
Officials stationed by Russia in the area near the power plant suggested the visit could last just one day, while officials from the IAEA and Ukraine suggested it could last longer.
“The mission will take a few days. If we are able to establish a permanent presence, or a continuous presence, then it will be prolonged. But this first segment will take a few days,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi told reporters at a hotel in Zaporizhzhia.
“We have a very important task to perform there: to assess the real situation there, to help stabilize the situation as much as we can,” he said, adding that the IAEA team had guarantees from both Russia and Ukraine that allowed it to enter the war. zone.
Russia captured the plant, Europe’s largest, in early March as part of what Moscow calls its “special military operation,” which Kyiv and the West describe as an unprovoked invasion designed to seize land and erase Ukrainian identity.
Since then, a Russian military force has been at the plant, as has most of the Ukrainian workforce that has worked hard to continue operating the facility, which traditionally supplied Ukraine with 20 percent of its electricity needs.
Fighting was reported near the power station and further afield, with Kyiv and Moscow claiming battlefield successes as Ukraine mounted a counteroffensive to recapture territory in the south. Reuters was unable to independently verify such reports.
Outside Ukraine, Russia halted gas supplies via Europe’s key supply route on Wednesday, intensifying an economic battle between Moscow and Brussels that could lead to a recession and energy rationing in some of the world’s richest countries. region.
European Union foreign ministers decided on Wednesday to make it more costly and time-consuming for Russians to obtain visas to visit the bloc, but stopped short of agreeing on an EU-wide visa ban that some member states wanted.
Ukraine and Russia have been accusing each other for weeks of jeopardizing the plant’s safety with artillery or drone strikes and risking a Chernobyl-style radiation disaster.
Kyiv says Russia has been using the plant as a shield to hit towns and cities, knowing it will be difficult for Ukraine to return fire. He also accused Russian forces of bombing the plant.
“The risk of a radiation disaster due to Russian actions does not decrease even for an hour,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday night.
The Russian Defense Ministry has said that radiation levels at the plant are normal.
Russia has denied Ukraine’s claims of reckless behavior, questioning why it would bomb a facility where its own troops are garrisoned as what it calls a security detachment.
Moscow accused the Ukrainians of bombing the plant to try to spark international outrage that Kyiv hopes will result in a demilitarized zone.
Ukraine’s Energy Minister German Galuschenko said the IAEA inspection was a step toward “emptying and demilitarizing” the site. Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now.
Asked about the plans for a demilitarized zone at the plant, Grossi said that it is a question of the political will of the countries in conflict.
“My mission is a technical mission. It is a mission that seeks to prevent a nuclear accident. And to preserve this important (nuclear power plant),” he said.
Questions and doubts
However, it was not clear how long the inspectors would be able to stay there.
Russia said it welcomed the IAEA’s stated intention to establish a permanent mission at the plant. But Yevgeny Balitsky, head of the Russian-installed administration in the area, told the Interfax news agency that IAEA inspectors “must see the station’s work in one day.”
The United States has called for a complete closure of the plant and called for a demilitarized zone around it.
The plant is close to the front line and Ukraine’s armed forces on Wednesday accused Russia of shelling the area and preparing to resume an offensive there.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow.
In his late-night speech, Zelensky said Ukrainian forces were attacking Russian positions in Ukraine all along the front after Kyiv announced on Monday that it had launched an offensive to try to retake the south. Zelensky said his forces were also on the offensive in the east.
Meanwhile, Germany’s defense chief Gen. Eberhard Zorn has warned the West should not underestimate Moscow’s military strength, saying Russia has a chance to open a second front if it decides to do so.
Russia captured large swaths of southern Ukraine near the Black Sea coast in the first weeks of the six-month war, including in the Kherson region, which lies north of the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine sees taking back the region as crucial to staving off Russian attempts to seize more territory further west that could eventually cut off its access to the Black Sea.
Russia has denied reports of Ukraine’s progress, saying its troops had defeated Ukrainian forces.