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Protect Ukraine nuclear plant: UN chief

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Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant as the head of the UN proposes a demilitarised zone at the site amid fears of a catastrophe.

Ukraine’s Energoatom agency said the Zaporizhzhia complex was struck five times on Thursday, including near where radioactive materials are stored.

Russian-appointed officials said Ukraine shelled the plant twice, disrupting a shift changeover, Russia’s TASS news agency said.

The UN Security Council met on Thursday to discuss the situation, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling on both sides to halt all fighting near the plant.

“The facility must not be used as part of any military operation,” Secretary-General Guterres said in a statement.

“Instead, urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarisation to ensure the safety of the area.”

Russia seized Zaporizhzhia in March. The plant, near the frontline in the fighting, is held by Russian troops and operated by Ukrainian workers.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the world was being pushed “to the brink of nuclear catastrophe, comparable in scale with Chernobyl”.

He said International Atomic Energy Agency officials could visit the site as soon as this month.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded Russia return the plant to Ukraine’s control.

“Only a full withdrawal of the Russians … and the restoration of full Ukrainian control of the situation around the station can guarantee a resumption of nuclear security for all of Europe,” he said in a video address.

France echoed President Zelensky’s demand and said Russia’s occupation of the site endangered the world.

“The presence and actions of the Russian armed forces near the plant significantly increase the risk of an accident with potentially devastating consequences,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement.

Kyiv and Moscow have previously blamed each other for attacks on the site. Ukraine has also accused Russia of firing rockets at Ukrainian towns from around the captured nuclear power plant in the knowledge it would be risky for Ukraine to return fire.

Separately, satellite pictures released on Thursday showed devastation at an air base in Russian-annexed Crimea.

It suggested Ukraine may have new long-range strike capability with potential to change the course of the war, Western military experts said.

Images from independent satellite firm Planet Labs showed three near-identical craters where buildings at Russia’s Saki air base had been struck with apparent precision.

The base, on the southwest coast of Crimea, suffered extensive fire damage with at least eight destroyed aircraft clearly visible.

Russia has denied jets were damaged and said explosions at the base on Tuesday were accidental. Ukraine has not publicly claimed responsibility for the attack.

Referring to the damage, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters: “Officially, we are not confirming or denying anything … bearing in mind that there were several epicentres of explosions at exactly the same time”.

President Zelensky told officials to stop talking to reporters about Kyiv’s military tactics, saying such remarks were “frankly irresponsible”.

The New York Times and Washington Post newspapers cited unidentified officials as saying Ukrainian forces were responsible for the Crimea attack.

Russia, which seized and annexed Crimea in 2014, uses the peninsula as the base for its Black Sea fleet and as the main supply route for its invasion forces occupying southern Ukraine, where Kyiv is planning a counter-offensive in coming weeks.

Exactly how the attack was carried out remains a mystery but the near-identical impact craters and simultaneous explosions appear to indicate it was hit by a volley of weapons capable of evading Russian defences.

The base is well beyond the range of artillery Western countries acknowledge sending to Ukraine, but within range of more powerful versions Kyiv has sought.

Ukraine also has anti-ship missiles which could be used to hit targets on land.

Meanwhile, the US State Department said Russian officials trained in Iran in recent weeks as part of an agreement on the transfer of drones between the two countries.

US officials said last month that Iran was preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred drones, including some that are weapons capable, raising concerns that Tehran was now supporting Russia in its war in Ukraine.

– AAP

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