International nuclear inspectors arrive in Zaporizhzhia to inspect power plant
Watchdog IAEA hopes to be able to inspect the plant for 'a few days,' speak to Ukrainian workers
United Nations inspectors arrived at the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday on a mission to prevent an accident at a nearby Russian-occupied nuclear power plant and to try to stabilize the situation after weeks of shelling in the vicinity.
A Reuters reporter following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team in a convoy from the capital Kyiv said the inspectors were likely to spend the night in the city before visiting the plant, which is on territory controlled by Russia, on Thursday.
Russian-installed officials in the area near the power station suggested the visit might last only one day, while IAEA and Ukrainian officials suggested it would last longer.
"The mission will take a few days. If we are able to establish a permanent presence, or a continued presence, then it's going to be prolonged. But this first segment is going to take a few days," IAEA director general Rafael Grossi told reporters at a hotel in Zaporizhzhia.
Before departing Kyiv, Grossi had told reporters the team was "going to a war zone" and had received "explicit guarantees" of access from both the Russian federation and Ukraine.
Prospects for demilitarization at site unclear
Russia captured the plant, Europe's largest, in early March as part of what Moscow calls its "special military operation," something Kyiv and the West have described as an unprovoked invasion designed to grab land and erase Ukrainian identity.
A Russian military force has been at the plant ever since, with a Ukrainian workforce continuing to run the facility, which traditionally supplied Ukraine with 20 per cent of its electricity needs.
Fighting was reported near the power station and further afield, with Kyiv and Moscow both claiming battlefield successes as Ukraine mounted a counter-offensive to recapture territory in the south. Reuters could not independently verify such reports.
The United States has urged a complete shutdown of the plant and called for a demilitarized zone around it.
Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galuschenko said Thursday the IAEA inspection was a step towards "deoccupying and demilitarizing" the site. Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now.
Asked about plans for a demilitarized zone at the plant, Grossi said this was a matter of political will and that his team was on a technical mission, with one of the main priorities being able to talk to the Ukrainian technicians running the plant.
WATCH | What the IAEA inspectors hope to accomplish:
Gas supplies halted
Away from Ukraine, Russia halted gas supplies via Europe's key supply route on Wednesday, intensifying an economic battle between Moscow and Brussels that could lead to recession and energy rationing in some of the region's richest countries.
European Union foreign ministers decided on Wednesday to make it more expensive and lengthier for Russians to obtain visas to visit the bloc, but stopped short of agreeing on an EU-wide visa ban that some member states had wanted.
On the battlefield, Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy in a late-night address on Tuesday said Ukrainian forces were attacking Russian positions in Ukraine along the entire front line in an offensive to try to retake the south. Zelenskyy said his forces were also on the offensive in the east.
Russia captured large tracts of southern Ukraine near the Black Sea coast in the early weeks of the six-month-old war, including in the Kherson region, which lies north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine sees recapturing the region as crucial to prevent Russian attempts to seize more territory further west that could eventually cut off its access to the Black Sea.
Britain, an ally of Ukraine, said Ukrainian formations in the south had pushed Russian front-line forces back some distance in places, exploiting relatively thin Russian defences.
Ukraine said it had "successes" in three areas of the region but declined to give details.
Russia's defence ministry has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.
Away from Ukraine, European Union foreign ministers agreed on Wednesday to fully suspend a visa facilitation agreement with Russia, making it harder and more costly for Russian citizens to enter the EU, the bloc's foreign policy chief Josep Borell said.
Diplomats told the EU that ministers could not agree immediately on a blanket ban of travel visas for Russians as member states were split on the issue.
Ukraine's allies have accused Russia of using energy as a weapon in retaliation for Western sanctions. Moscow denies doing so and cites technical reasons for supply cuts, but the energy supply reduction is one of the factors that has seen eurozone inflation reach significant levels, including a 9.1 per cent tally for August in a report released Wednesday.