ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Heavy fighting continued Friday near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in a Russian-controlled area of eastern Ukraine, a day after experts from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency voiced concerns about structural damage to the sprawling Zaporizhzhia site.
Britain’s Defense Ministry says shelling continued in the district where the Zaporizhzhia power plant sits. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said Russian shelling damaged houses, gas pipelines and other infrastructure in the Nikopol region on the other bank of the Dnieper River, part of fighting in several areas of eastern and southern Ukraine overnight.
The team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, braving gunfire and artillery blasts along their route, crossed the frontlines to reach the Zaporizhzhia plant on Thursday in a mission to help safeguard the plant against catastrophe. Fighting Thursday prompted the shutdown of one reactor — underscoring the urgency of their task.
Russia and Ukraine traded accusations that the other side was trying to impede the work of the IAEA experts, or control the message.
Zelenskyy, in his nightly address on Thursday, had tough words for the IAEA delegation. While applauding its arrival at the plant, he said independent journalists were kept from covering the visit, allowing Russians to present a one-sided, “futile tour.”
In a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow considered “positively” the arrival of the mission, “despite all problems and difficulties caused by the Ukrainian side’s provocative actions.”
The 14-member delegation arrived in a convoy of SUVs and vans after months of negotiations to enable the experts to pass through the front lines. Speaking to reporters after leaving colleagues inside, IAEA director Rafael Grossi, said the agency was “not moving” from the plant from now on, and vowed Thursday a “continued presence” of agency experts.
Grossi said it was “obvious that the plant and the physical integrity of the plant has been violated several times” — but couldn’t assess whether by chance or on purpose. “I will continue to be worried about the plant until we have a situation which is more stable,” he said.
Grossi said IAEA experts toured the entire site, including control rooms, emergency systems and diesel generators, and met with the plant’s staff.
The plant has been occupied by Russian forces but run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the 6-month war.
Ukraine alleges Russia is using the plant as a shield to launch attacks. On Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu rejected the Ukrainian allegations and said Russia has no heavy weapons either on the site or in nearby areas.
Shoigu said Ukrainian forces have fired 120 artillery shells and used 16 suicide drones to hit the plant, “raising a real threat of a nuclear catastrophe in Europe.”
Before the IAEA team arrived, Energoatom, Ukraine’s state nuclear power company, said Russian mortar shelling had led to the shutdown of one of its reactors by its emergency protection system and had damaged a backup power supply line used for in-house needs.
IAEA announced plans for a news conference later Friday from its headquarters in Vienna to discuss the mission.
Energoatom on Friday accused Russian forces of “making every effort” to prevent the IAEA mission from getting to know the facts on the ground. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov said Russia was making sure that the plant was secure and safe, and that mission “accomplishes all of its plans there.”
Elsewhere in Ukraine on Friday, Zelenskyy’s office said four people were killed and 10 injured over the last day in the eastern Donetsk region, a key hub of the Russian invasion, and reported rocket attacks on Sloviansk that destroyed a kindergarten. It said heavy fighting continues in two districts of the Kherson region to the south.