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Ukrainian city near nuclear plant faces rocket barrage

Powerful explosions rattled the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv on Thursday and a city close to the country's biggest nuclear power plant sustained a barrage of shelling, part of a series of new Russian attacks in several regions, Ukrainian officials said.

Nikopol, in southern Ukraine, is located across the Dnieper river from Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

A closeup of a shattered building window is shown.
Holes of shrapnel are seen in a window of a building on Thursday after shelling in Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. (The Associated Press)

Russian forces shelled a Ukrainian city close to Europe's biggest nuclear power plant Thursday, reinforcing warnings from the UN nuclear chief that the fighting around the site could lead to a disastrous accident.

Dnipropetrovsk's regional governor said Russia fired 60 rockets at Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which has been under Russian supervision since Moscow's troops seized it early in the war.

Some 50 residential buildings were damaged in the city of 107,000 and residents were left without electricity, Valentyn Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had warned on Tuesday that the situation was becoming more perilous daily at the Zaporizhzhia plant in the city of Enerhodar.

"Every principle of nuclear safety has been violated" at the plant, he said. "What is at stake is extremely serious and extremely grave and dangerous."

He expressed concern about the way the plant is being operated and the danger posed by the fighting going on around it. He cited shelling at the beginning of the war when it was taken over and continuing instances of Ukraine and Russia accusing each other of attacks there.

Experts at the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War believe that Russia is shelling the area intentionally, "putting Ukraine in a difficult position."

"Either Ukraine returns fire, risking international condemnation and a nuclear incident [which Ukrainian forces are unlikely to do], or Ukrainian forces allow Russian forces to continue firing on Ukrainian positions from an effective 'safe zone,"' the think-tank said.

The Russian capture of Zaporizhzhia renewed fears that the largest of Ukraine's four nuclear power plants could be damaged, setting off an emergency like the 1986 Chornobyl accident, the world's worst nuclear disaster, which happened about 110 kilometres north of the capital, Kyiv.

Also in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the Russian military struck two Ukrainian munitions depots near the village of Novoivanivka and a fuel depot near the Zaporizhzhia railway station.

Competing claims of responsibility

In northern Ukraine, the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv, was shelled by the Russians, Ukraine's presidential office said. Several industrial facilities were hit in the city, which also has been a frequent target. In the nearby city of Chuhuiv, a rocket hit a five-storey residential building.

Fighting continued in the fiercely contested Donetsk region in the east, with Ukrainian authorities saying a school was destroyed in the village of Ocheretyne. The region is struggling without gas supplies and, in part, without power and water supplies; its residents are being evacuated.

In the town of Toretsk, artillery shells hit a bus stop, a church and apartment buildings, killing at least eight people, regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Ruslana Panchenko drops a handful of dirt on the casket of her father, Oleh, during his burial service in Pekrovsk, Donetsk region, on Thursday. Oleh Panchenko, 48, was killed while fighting for Ukraine in a battle with Russian forces on July 27 in the Donetsk region. (David Goldman/The Associated Press)

In the city of Donetsk, Russian-backed separatist authorities accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the central part of the city Thursday. The area hit was near a theatre where a farewell ceremony for a prominent separatist officer killed a few days ago was being held. Donetsk Mayor Alexei Kulemzin said six people were killed.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied Ukrainian involvement. He alleged, without offering evidence, that Russian or separatist forces were responsible for the shelling.

Russia and Ukraine have repeatedly accused each other of firing on territories under their own control.

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Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials have expressed concern that Russia is looking to plant false evidence to make it appear that Ukrainian forces were responsible for the July 29 attack on Olenivka Prison that left 53 dead and wounded dozens more, a U.S. official familiar with the intelligence finding told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Russia has claimed that Ukraine's military used U.S.-supplied rocket launchers to strike the prison in Olenivka, a settlement controlled by the Moscow-backed Donetsk People's Republic.

The Ukrainian military denied making any rocket or artillery strikes in Olenivka. The intelligence arm of the Ukrainian defence ministry claimed in a statement Wednesday to have evidence that local Kremlin-backed separatists colluded with the Russian FSB, the KGB's main successor agency, and mercenary group Wagner to mine the barrack before "using a flammable substance, which led to the rapid spread of fire in the room."

The official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the classified intelligence shows that Russian officials might even plant ammunition from medium-ranged High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, as evidence that the systems provided by the U.S. to Ukraine were used in the attack.

U.S. lawmakers overwhelmingly back NATO bids

Calling the war in Ukraine the most dangerous moment for Europe since the Second World War, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday that to prevent Moscow from succeeding, the alliance may have to continue to support Ukraine with arms and other assistance for a long time to come.

"It's in our interest that this type of aggressive policy does not succeed," said Stoltenberg, the former prime minister of Norway, at a speech in his native country.

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin:

The war has led previously non-aligned Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership, with the request so far ratified by 23 of the 30 member states, including the United States in a near-unanimous Senate vote on Wednesday.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who has been the principal player rallying global economic and material support for Ukraine, has sought quick entry for the two previously non-militarily aligned northern European nations.

"I look forward to signing the accession protocols and welcoming Sweden and Finland, two strong democracies with highly capable militaries, into the greatest defensive alliance in history," Biden said in a statement after the Senate vote.

With files from Reuters

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