Fresh shelling at Ukrainian nuclear plant as UN supports site inspection by energy watchdog

Ukrainian and Russian-installed officials reported shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine on Monday, with both sides blaming each other for the assaults days after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, warned of disaster if the fighting does not stop.

Russia and Ukraine have traded accusations this month of shelling near the plant, which dominates the south bank of a vast reservoir on the Dnipro River, amid fears of a nuclear catastrophe.

The plant is in the city of Enerhodar, which is controlled currently by Russian forces. Vladimir Rogov, a Russia-installed official in Enerhodar, said that about 25 heavy artillery strikes from U.S.-made M777 howitzers had hit near the nuclear plant and residential areas over a two-hour period on Monday.

Yevhen Yevtushenko, head of the administration of the Nikopol district, which lies across the river from Enerhodar, accused Russian forces of shelling the city.

WATCH | Shelling at Ukraine nuclear plant raises fears of disaster:

Shelling at Ukraine nuclear plant raises fears over health, environmental threats

The UN is urging inspectors with the International Atomic Agency to be allowed access to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to check for radiation leaks after the site came under fire again over the weekend.

Calls for a demilitarized zone

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is seeking access to the plant, has warned of possible disaster. Nuclear experts fear the fighting might damage the plant’s spent fuel pools or reactors.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for the establishment of a demilitarized zone around Zaporizhzhia. The United Nations has the logistics and security capacity to support an IAEA visit if both Russia and Ukraine agree, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu held a phone call with Guterres to discuss conditions for the safe functioning of the plant, the defence ministry said, and a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry said it would do all it could to allow IAEA specialists to visit.

“In close cooperation with the agency and its leadership, we will do everything necessary for the IAEA specialists to be at the station and give a truthful assessment of the destructive actions of the Ukrainian side,” said spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

A Russian serviceman stands guard at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on May 1. (The Associated Press)

Ukraine, where parliament on Monday extended martial law for a further three months, has said for weeks it is planning a counteroffensive to recapture Zaporizhzhia and neighbouring Kherson province, the largest part of the territory Russia seized after its Feb. 24 invasion and still holds.

Ukrainian forces reported heavy Russian shelling and attempts to advance on several towns in the eastern region of Donetsk that has become a key focus of the nearly six-month-old war, but said they had repelled many of the attacks.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces also reported Russian shelling of more than a dozen towns on the southern front — particularly in the Kherson region, mainly held by Russian forces but where Ukrainian troops are steadily retaking territory.

Accused foreign fighters could face death penalty

As leaders argued over the fate of Zaporizhzhia, five European citizens captured in eastern Ukraine have gone on trial in a court administered by Kremlin-backed separatists in the city of Donetsk.

Russian media say the five included Swede Matthias Gustafsson, Croat Vjekoslav Prebeg, and Britons John Harding, Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy.

John Harding, left, Vjekoslav Prebeg, Mathias Gustafsson, Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy are standing trial on charges of being mercenaries, after being captured while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. They are pictured in a courtroom in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine controlled by separatist authorities of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, on Monday. (The Associated Press)

It was reported all pleaded not guilty to charges of mercenarism and “undergoing training to seize power by force.”

The five men could face the death penalty under the laws of the self-proclaimed, unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic.

Their next court hearing is scheduled for October.

In June, a court in the self-proclaimed republic sentenced two Britons and a Moroccan to death for being mercenaries. All three have appealed.

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