KYIV — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has warned Russian soldiers who shoot at Europe’s largest nuclear power station or use it as a base to shoot from that they will become a “special target” for Ukrainian forces.
Meanwhile, an Africa-bound food aid cargo was getting ready to depart from Ukraine in the coming days, the first since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and sources said the first grains ship to leave Ukraine under a UN deal was nearing Syria.
Russian troops captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility in southern Ukraine early in the war, but it is still being run by Ukrainian technicians.
Amid fears of a nuclear catastrophe over renewed shelling there over the past days, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for the establishment of a demilitarized zone. Ukraine and Russia trade blame for the shelling.
“Every Russian soldier who either shoots at the plant, or shoots using the plant as cover, must understand that he becomes a special target for our intelligence agents, for our special services, for our army,” Zelenskiy said in an evening address on Saturday .
Zelenskiy, who did not give any details, reiterated that he considered Russia was using the plant as nuclear blackmail.
The plant dominates the south bank of a vast reservoir on the Dnipro River. Ukrainian forces controlling the towns and cities on the opposite bank have come under intense bombardment from the Russian-held side.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak accused Russia of “hitting the part of the nuclear power plant where the energy that powers the south of Ukraine is generated.”
“The goal is to disconnect us from the (plant) and blame the Ukrainian army for this,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter.
Local Russian-installed official Vladimir Rogov wrote on Telegram that Ukrainian forces were shelling the plant.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which is seeking to inspect the plant, has warned of a nuclear disaster unless fighting stops. Nuclear experts fear fighting might damage the plant’s spent fuel pools or the reactors.
While fighting continued, some cargo ships have continued to leave Ukraine as part of a UN- and Turkey-brokered deal in late July aimed partly at easing a global food crisis.
The UN-chartered ship Brave Commander will depart for Africa in the days ahead after it finishes loading more than 23,000 metric tonnes of wheat in the Ukrainian port of Pivdennyi, a UN official said on Sunday.
The ship, which arrived in the port near Odesa, will sail to Ethiopia via a grain corridor through the Black Sea.
“The world needs the food of Ukraine. This is the beginning of what we hope is normal operations for the hungry people of the world,” Marianne Ward, World Food Programme deputy country director, told reporters. The relief agency purchased more than 800,000 tonnes of grain in Ukraine last year.
Separately, the first ship to depart Ukraine under the deal two weeks ago was approaching the Syrian port of Tartous on Sunday, two shipping sources said. The Razoni had been destined for Lebanon but hit a snag when the buyer refused delivery, fearing the quality of the corn had diminished after months on board.
Kyiv has said for weeks it is planning a counteroffensive to recapture Zaporizhzhia and neighboring Kherson provinces, the largest part of the territory Russia seized after its Feb. 24 invasion and still in Russian hands.
Russia’s priority over the past week has likely been to reorient units to strengthen its campaign in southern Ukraine, British military intelligence said on Sunday.
Russian-backed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in the eastern region of Donbas continued assaults to the north of Donetsk city, the British Defence Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on Twitter.
Ukraine’s military command said early on Sunday that Russian soldiers had continued, unsuccessfully, to attack Ukrainian positions near Avdiivka, which since 2014 has become one of the outposts of Ukrainian forces near Donetsk.
Russia, in a daily briefing, said it had taken control of Udy, a village in the eastern Kharkiv region, which is under continual shelling by Russian forces.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts.
Russia calls the invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” its smaller neighbor, has pushed Moscow-Washington relations to a low point, with Russia warning it may sever ties.
(Reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv, Yoruk Isik in Istanbul, Andrea Shalal in Yuzhne, Maya Gebeily in Beirut and Jonathan Saul in London, and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Michael Perry and Ingrid Melander; Editing by William Mallard and Alison Williams)