Russia carried out a deadly salvo of missile attacks on the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia early Thursday, just hours after the Kremlin said it was formally seizing a massive nuclear power plant nearby.
The barrage began with pre-dawn strikes, the first of which hit high-rise residential buildings as people slept, Ukrainian officials said. One women 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 the city along the Dnipro River to take shelter.
The city of Zaporizhzhia is not far from the front lines of the conflict. Though the city is under Ukrainian control, about 75% of the greater Zaporizhzhia region is occupied by Russian forces. That region is one of four Ukrainian territories Russia is annexing in violation of international law. The other three are Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson in the south.
The Russian strikes in Zaporizhzhia come just a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree federalizing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is located about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the city and sits in Russian occupied territory along the Dnipro River.
The plant is the largest nuclear power facility in Europe and has been under Russian control since the beginning of the war, though it is still operated mostly by Ukrainian technicians.
Ukraine’s military on Tuesday alleged that plant employees were being subjected to “moral and psychological pressure” and had been forced to obtain Russian passports and sign employment contracts with Russia’s state nuclear energy agency. CNN has been unable to verify those allegations, but when Putin announced the planned annexation of the four Ukrainian territories on Friday, he said the millions of people living there would be Russian citizens “forever.”
The Zaporizhzhia plant has been subject to intense scrutiny since its occupation shortly after Russia’s invasion in late February. Intense shelling near the facility this summer sparked concerns of a nuclear accident, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency to send a team there.
The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Rafael Grossi, was 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 visit Russia in the coming days.
Grossi said at a news conference that it’s still unclear what the “practical consequences” were of Russia’s decision to seize the plant, but he would be discussing those matters in high-level meetings in Moscow. He also said that the IAEA considers the facility Ukrainian.
“We want this war to stop. The war should stop immediately. The position of the IAEA is that this facility is a Ukrainian facility, but I don’t get into comments about military developments,” Grossi said.
“For us, it is obvious that since this is a Ukrainian facility, the ownership (sic) is on Energatom,” Grossi said, referring to the Ukrainian state nuclear agency. “We are an international agency, and we are guided by international law. And as you all know very well, annexations are not accepted under international law.”
Grossi said it was beyond his team’s ability to investigate allegations of crimes committed against the Ukrainian staff working at the plant. The IAEA currently has two employees at the plant who are working under “almost unbearable circumstances,” but they will be rotated out soon, Grossi said.
Ukraine’s military continues to forge ahead with its successful counteroffensive, regaining territory in the south and forcing Russian troops to retreat from territory the Kremlin is attempting to claim as its own.
Ukraine’s military said Russian units were suffering heavy losses in Kherson and on Wednesday were attempting to evacuate wounded servicemen to safety across the Dnipro River, as Kyiv presses further along its west bank. Ukraine also said it is pushing ahead in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where fighting against Moscow-backed breakaway republics has been ongoing since 2014.
Russia has vowed to take control of all of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but its goals in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are less clear, which has created confusion about the boundaries that Russia is claiming. Putin said Wednesday he expects the situation to stabilize, despite the fact that Russia’s military does not fully control those areas.
Pro-Russian media has been surprisingly critical of the war effort in recent days, with some alleging that the Kremlin does not have enough troops to repel Ukrainian attacks.
“We are just waiting for our reserves to become fighting fit and join the battle,” said Yuriy Podolyaka, a pro-Russian military blogger.
Podolyaka was likely referring to the 300,000 reservists that are to be called up as part of a “partial mobilization” ordered by Putin last month. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday more than 200,000 people have joined the country’s military since the announcement, which sparked protests and sent hundreds of thousands of people – mostly fighting-age men – fleeing into neighboring countries.
Ukraine’s military alleged that Russia was recruiting new soldiers from penal colonies, including more than 650 prisoners from high-security prison in Stavropol Krai.