KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A fire at an ammunition depot in Russia forced the evacuation of two villages near the border with Ukraine, an official said Friday, while two civilians were injured by Russian shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as both sides accusations of fighting near the facility in southern Ukraine.
The fire struck the ammunition storage building near the village of Timonovo in Russia’s Belgorod region on Ukraine’s northeastern border late Thursday. About 1,100 people live in Timonovo and Soloti, about 25 kilometers from the border. No one was injured, Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said.
The fire came days after another ammunition depot exploded in the Crimean Peninsula, a Russian-occupied Black Sea region annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Last week, nine Russian warplanes were destroyed at an airbase in Crimea, demonstrating both the Russians’ vulnerability and the Ukrainians’ ability to attack deep behind enemy lines.
Ukrainian authorities have stopped publicly claiming responsibility. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to Ukrainian attacks behind enemy lines after the explosion in Crimea, blaming Russia for “sabotage.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in televised comments on Friday that statements by Ukrainian officials about strike facilities in Crimea “mark an escalation in the conflict that is openly encouraged by the United States and its NATO allies.”
Ryabkov said Russian officials had warned the US of such actions in telephone conversations with senior members of the Biden administration, adding that “deep and overt involvement of the US” in the war in Ukraine is “effectively putting the US on the brink of a become a party to the conflict.”
Despite the latest incidents, a Western official said the war is “near operational standstill” and neither side is capable of launching major offensives.
“The whole pace of the campaign has slowed down, in part because both sides have become more aware that this is a marathon and not a sprint and that spending rates and preserving their ammunition are important,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss intelligence matters publicly.
Later Friday, a Ukrainian official said two civilians had been injured by Russian shelling on Ukrainian communities bordering the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, the latest in a long string of such shelling in recent weeks.
“A new enemy attack on the Nikopol district. Five shells fired by Russian cannon artillery flew into Marhanets residential areas,” Valentyn Reznichenko, the regional governor, said on Telegram. Both Nikopol and Marhanets are Ukraine-controlled towns overlooking the nuclear power plant across the Dnieper River.
“According to preliminary reports, two people were injured: an 18-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man. Both are in hospital,” Reznichenko added.
Kiev and Moscow continued to blame each other for shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
A senior official from Ukraine’s presidential office told reporters that “the threat of a global environmental disaster” is still due to the “periodic shelling” of the factory by the Russian military.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the presidential office, said during the same briefing that Russian shelling had destroyed “more than 3,700 infrastructure objects” near the plant, including facilities for heating, electricity, gas and water.
Zelenskyy also highlighted the situation around the Zaporizhzhya factory in his Friday evening speech.
“If Russia’s radiation blackmail continues, this summer could go down in the history of several European countries as one of the most tragic of all time. Because no instruction at any nuclear power plant in the world provides a procedure in case a terrorist state turns a nuclear power plant into a target,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin told French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in their first phone call since May 28 that Ukrainian shelling around the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant “posed the threat of a large-scale catastrophe that could lead to radioactive contamination of large territories.”
Zaporizhzhya nuclear facility in southern Ukraine has been controlled by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion started on February 24. Ukraine has accused Russia from storing troops and weapons at the factory and using the grounds to launch attacks on Ukraine-controlled territory. Ukrainian officials and military analysts say Moscow’s troops have cynically used the factory as a shield, knowing the Ukrainians are hesitant to return fire.
Russia has denied the charges, in turn accusing Ukrainian troops of repeatedly shelling the factory.
The French presidency said in a statement that Macron “underlined his concern” about the situation at the Zaporizhzhya plant and expressed his support for the deployment of an International Atomic Energy Agency mission to the site “as soon as possible”.
According to the French statement, Putin agreed to deploy the mission on the terms discussed. The Kremlin said that “the Russian side confirmed its willingness to provide necessary assistance to the agency’s experts.”
Yevgeny Balitsky, the Moscow-backed head of the temporary administration for the Russian-controlled part of the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Friday that an IAEA mission could approach the plant from Ukraine-occupied territory, a shift in Moscow’s position previously had suggested that the mission should travel from Crimea to the factory.
“I believe they can also come from the side of Ukraine,” Balitsky said in television comments. “We can get them safely to the factory and show them where the fire is coming from and who’s firing.”
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to international organizations in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, said he believes a visit from the agency could realistically take place in early September.
FOR OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:
— State energy company Gazprom has announced that a major Russian natural gas pipeline will be shut down for three days at the end of this month, increasing economic pressure on Germany and other European countries that rely on the fuel-to-power industry. electricity and heat homes. The latest shutdown comes a month after Gazprom restored natural gas supply through the pipeline to just one-fifth of its capacity after an earlier shutdown for maintenance. Russia has attributed the pipeline cuts to technical problems, but Germany has called the lockdowns a political move by the Kremlin to sow uncertainty and push prices up during the conflict in Ukraine.
— UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited a port in the Ukrainian coastal city of Odessa, where he praised ongoing efforts to maintain a shipping corridor in the Black Sea that will allow for the export of vital Ukrainian grain shipments. Guterres said 25 ships have departed Odessa and other Ukrainian ports since Russia and Ukraine signed a four-month grain export agreement in July. Those ships carried more than 600,000 tons of grain and other food supplies such as wheat, corn, sunflower oil and soybeans, Guterres said.
__ Responding to a report that Russia plans to divert electricity from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant to the Russian grid, the UN chief said the UN supports demilitarization of the plant, saying that if this is done, the problem will be solved. “And it is clear that the electricity from Zaporizhzhya is Ukrainian electricity, and it is necessary, especially during the winter for the Ukrainian people, and this principle must be fully respected,” Guterres said.
— At least five people have been killed and ten others injured by the Russian shelling of towns and villages in the eastern region of Donetsk, according to regional authorities. At least one civilian was also killed in Russian shelling on the city of Kharkiv on Friday. Russian missiles hit port facilities and a university building in the southern port city of Mykolaiv again.
__ The Ukrainian army said it had thwarted more than a dozen Russian attempts to advance into the eastern region of Donetsk, at the forefront of Moscow’s offensive. In its regular social media update, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces also reported that Russia continued shelling towns and villages in southern and eastern Ukraine.
The Russian-installed governor of Crimea’s largest city said a drone had been shot down there. “The air defense system is functioning in Sevastopol,” Mikhail Razvozhayev said on Telegram. “According to preliminary data, UAVs. The targets have been shot down,” he said. On Thursday, Razvozhayev reported that a drone had been shot down near Sevastopol’s local airport. His claims could not be immediately verified.
Jill Lawless in London contributed.
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