Russia carried out a deadly salvo of missile attacks on the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia just hours after the Kremlin announced it was officially seizing a massive nuclear power plant nearby.
The barrage began with predawn strikes, the first of which hit high-rise residential buildings as people slept, Ukrainian officials said. A woman was killed and seven people, including a 3-year-old girl, were hospitalized. Authorities are still working to rescue people from the rubble.
More missile strikes were reported after sunrise, prompting local officials to urge residents of towns along the Dnipro River to take shelter.
The city of Zaporizhzhia is not far from the front lines of the conflict. Although the city is under Ukrainian control, approximately 75% of the greater Zaporizhzhia region is occupied by Russian forces. This region is one of the four Ukrainian territories that Russia annexes in violation of international law. The other three are Donetsk and Luhansk to the east and Kherson to the south.
Russian strikes in Zaporizhzhia come just a day later Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree federalizing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, located about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the city and headquarters in Russian-occupied territory along the Dnipro River.
The plant is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and has been under Russian control since the beginning of the waralthough it is still operated mainly by Ukrainian technicians.
Ukraine’s military alleged on Tuesday that workers at the plant were under “moral and psychological pressure” and were coerced into obtaining Russian passports and signing employment contracts with Russia’s national agency for nuclear energy. CNN was unable to verify these claims, but when Putin announced plans to annex all four Ukrainian territories Fridayhe declared that the millions of people who would live there would be Russian citizens “forever”.
The Zaporizhzhia factory has come under intense scrutiny since its occupation shortly after the Russian invasion in late February. Intense shelling near the facility this summer sparked concerns of a nuclear accident, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency send a team.
The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, was due to arrive in Kyiv on Thursday to discuss his calls to establish a nuclear safety zone around the plant “as soon as possible”, the IAEA said in a statement. . Grossi will also travel to Russia in the coming days.
The Ukrainian military continues to push forward with its successful counter-offensive, retaking territory in the south and forcing Russian troops to withdraw from territory the Kremlin is trying to claim as its own.
Ukraine’s military said Russian units were taking heavy casualties in Kherson and were trying to evacuate wounded servicemen to safety across the Dnipro River on Wednesday as Kyiv sinks along its western bank. Ukraine also said it was making progress in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where fighting against Moscow-backed breakaway republics has continued since 2014.
Russia has pledged to take control of all Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, but its objectives in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are less clear, leading to confusion over Russia’s claimed borders. Putin said on Wednesday he expects the situation to stabilize, despite the fact that the Russian military does not fully control these areas.
Pro-Russian media have surprisingly criticized the war effort in recent days, with some alleging that the Kremlin did not have enough troops to repel Ukrainian attacks.
“We are just waiting for our reservists to become combat-ready and join the battle,” said Yuriy Podolyaka, a pro-Russian military blogger.
Podolyaka was probably referring to the 300,000 reservists to be called up as part of ‘partial mobilization’ ordered by Putin last month. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that more than 200,000 people had joined the country’s army since the announcement, which sparked protests and sent hundreds of thousands of people – mostly men of fighting age – to flee to neighboring countries.
The Ukrainian army alleged that Russia was recruiting new soldiers from the penal colonies, including more than 650 prisoners from the high-security Stavropol Krai prison.