KYIV (AP) — A convoy of jeeps carrying United Nations nuclear inspectors crossed Ukraine early Wednesday and was heading towards the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia power station, in hopes the world could help secure the facility amid a war zone. avoid any nuclear disaster.
Worryingly though, Russian-backed local officials in Zaporizhzhia claimed that Ukrainian forces bombed the facility’s grounds and the nearby town of Enerhodar overnight. Both sides have accused each other of bombing the wider area for weeks, raising fears of accidents or radiation leaks.
“We are going to the war zone. Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said of the unprecedented mission of the UN nuclear watchdog: “We will occupy the occupied territories.”
He added that he received “clear guarantees” that 14 expert missions from Russia could operate there.
But in a battle of claims and counterclaims that are extremely difficult to verify, Moscow’s local government in Enerhodar said on Wednesday that Ukrainian troops had bombarded the plant’s territory with 60 shots in the past 24 hours. The strikes included a drone attack on the facility’s administrative building, which damaged it. Management said another drone crashed into the facility’s training center.
He said there was no loss of life or release of radioactivity. It did little to allay fears that the mission’s safety might be compromised. Ukraine on Tuesday accused the Russians of bombing planned access roads to the facility to encourage them to change course and pass through Russian-controlled areas instead.
The power plant was occupied by Russian forces and has been operated by Ukrainian workers since the first days of the 6-month war.
The world watched the progress of the mission anxiously. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reiterated his call for Russia to completely disarm the area around the plant.
“They’re playing games. They’re gambling with nuclear safety,” Borrell told reporters in the Czech capital, Prague. “We can’t play war games around a site like this.”
Ukraine’s Energy Minister German Galushchenko said on Wednesday that Moscow is continuing the course of blocking. “We now have information that they are trying to hide their military assets, so they must control all this,” he said of the UN mission.
Kyiv seeks international assistance to demilitarize the region.
“We think it should be a very important step to get the mission (the facility) back under Ukrainian government control by the end of the year,” Galushchenko told the Associated Press.
If all goes well, IAEA inspectors will arrive in the Zaporizhzhia region, 450 kilometers (280 miles) southeast of the Ukrainian capital, late Wednesday. Experts may have to move through areas of active conflict without a publicly announced ceasefire.
The facility was recently temporarily cut off from the power grid due to fire damage, causing a power outage in the region and raising disaster fears in a Chernobyl disaster-ravaged country.
Zaporizhzhia is a vital energy source for Ukraine and remains connected to the electricity grid. Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of bombing the wider area around the nuclear power plant, and the risks are so severe that authorities have begun distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.
Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday to discuss the mission, which is expected to take several days.
Energy dominated early news for another reason, earlier Wednesday, when Russia’s Gazprom claimed it was a technical move it had previously announced, stopping the flow of natural gas through a major pipeline from Western Europe.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine