ZAPORIZHZHIA/kyiv (Reuters) – Ukraine on Monday announced the start of a long-awaited counteroffensive to retake southern territory seized by Russian forces since their invasion six months ago, a move reflecting Kyiv’s growing confidence as Western military aid arrives.
The news broke as a team from the UN’s nuclear watchdog traveled to Ukraine to inspect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – captured by Russian forces in March but still run by Ukrainian personnel – which has become a hotspot hot from war.
Moscow and Kyiv have traded accusations of bombing near the nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest and close to front lines, amid fears of a radioactive disaster in a country still haunted by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 .
“Today we launched offensive actions in various directions, including in the Kherson region,” Ukrainian state broadcaster Suspilne said, citing Southern Command spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk.
Russia quickly captured swaths of southern Ukraine near the Black Sea coast, including the city of Kherson, early in the war, in stark contrast to its failed attempt to capture the capital Kyiv.
Ukraine has used sophisticated weapons supplied by the West to strike Russian munitions dumps and wreak havoc on supply lines. Humeniuk told a briefing on Monday that Ukraine had struck more than 10 such ammunition dumps in the past week, adding that they had “unquestionably weakened the enemy”.
She declined to give details of the counteroffensive, saying Russian forces in southern Ukraine remained “quite strong”.
The governor of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, annexed to Russia, Sergei Aksyonov, dismissed his announcement as “another fake of Ukrainian propaganda”. Crimea is adjacent to the Kherson region.
Russian news agency RIA, quoting local official Vladimir Leontiev, reported that people were being evacuated from workplaces in Nova Kahokva, a town 58 km (36 miles) east of Kherson, after the Ukrainian forces carried out more than 10 missile strikes there.
Earlier, the head of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) said he would lead a team of inspectors to the Zaporizhzhia plant on the Dnipro river in south-central Ukraine this week without specify the expected day of arrival.
“We must protect the safety and security of the largest nuclear facility in Ukraine and Europe,” Rafael Grossi said in a post on Twitter.
The IAEA tweeted separately that the mission would assess physical damage, assess the conditions under which personnel work at the plant and “determine the functionality of safety and security systems”. It would also “perform urgent safeguards activities,” a reference to tracking nuclear materials.
On Monday, Russian-installed officials said a Ukrainian missile strike ripped a hole in the roof of a fuel depot at the Zaporizhzhia plant.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its forces shot down a Ukrainian drone that was trying to attack the nuclear power plant, Russian news agencies reported. He said there was no serious damage and radiation levels were normal.
The Kremlin said the IAEA mission was “necessary” and urged the international community to pressure Ukraine to reduce military tensions at the plant.
The United Nations, United States and Ukraine have called for the withdrawal of military equipment and personnel from the nuclear complex to ensure it is not a target. But the Kremlin again ruled out leaving the site.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the IAEA mission must carry out its work in a politically neutral manner. “They have to be objective,” she told Rossiya 24 TV.
Russian forces fired on Enerhodar, the Dnipro-river town where the plant is located, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff said on his Telegram channel on Sunday evening, accompanied by a video of firefighters spraying burning cars .
“They provoke and try to blackmail the world,” Andriy Yermak said.
Liliia Vaulina, 22, among a growing number of refugees from Enerhodar arriving in the Ukrainian town of Zaporizhzhia, about 50 km (30 miles) upriver from the plant, said she hoped the mission of the IAEA would lead to a demilitarization of its area.
“I think they will stop the bombing,” she told Reuters.
Two of the plant’s reactors were cut off from the power grid last week due to bombings.
‘EVERY SHELL COUNTS’
In the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Russian forces shelled military and civilian infrastructure near Bakhmut, Shumy, Yakovlivka, Zaytsevo and Kodema, the Ukrainian military said on Monday.
Russian strikes killed eight civilians in Donetsk province on Sunday, governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Moscow denies targeting civilians.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation” to demilitarize its southern neighbor. Ukraine, which gained independence in the breakup of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union in 1991, and its Western allies have dismissed it as a baseless pretext for a war of conquest.
The invasion of Ukraine sparked the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II.