Ukraine and Russia accused each other on Friday of risking nuclear disaster by shelling Europe's largest nuclear power plant, occupied by Russian forces in a region expected to become one of the next big front lines of the war.
Western countries have called for Moscow to withdraw its troops from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and the United Nations called on Thursday for it to be declared a demilitarised zone. But there has been no sign so far of Russia agreeing to move its troops out of the facility they seized in March.
The plant dominates the south bank of a vast reservoir on the Dnipro river that cuts across southern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces controlling the towns and cities on the opposite bank have come under intense bombardment from the Russian-held side.
Three civilians, including a boy, were wounded in overnight shelling of one of those towns, Marhanets, Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, said in the latest in a string of similar reports.
Kyiv has said for weeks it is planning a counteroffensive to recapture Zaporizhzhia and neighbouring Kherson provinces, the largest part of the territory Russia seized after its Feb. 24 invasion still in Russian hands. Moscow has installed regional officials who say they intend to stage votes to join Russia.
Ukraine's Energoatom agency, whose workers still operate the plant under Russian occupation, said the power station was struck five times on Thursday, including near where radioactive materials are stored. Both sides blamed each other for the blasts and Reuters could not verify either account.
Russia says Ukraine is recklessly firing at the plant. Kyiv says Russian troops struck it themselves, and are also using the plant as a shield to provide cover while they bombard nearby Ukrainian-held towns and cities.
"The Ukrainian Armed Forces do not damage the infrastructure (of the plant), do not strike where there may be a danger on a global scale. We understand that the invaders are hiding behind such a shield because it is not possible to strike there," Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Ukraine's southern military command, told Ukrainian national television.
The U.N. Security Council, where Russia wields a veto, met on Thursday to discuss the situation. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on both sides to stop all fighting near the plant.
"The facility must not be used as part of any military operation. Instead, urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarisation to ensure the safety of the area," Guterres said in a statement.
At the Security Council meeting, the United States backed the call for a demilitarised zone and urged the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the site.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the world was being pushed "to the brink of nuclear catastrophe", comparable in scale with the 1986 Chornobyl disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine. He said IAEA officials could visit the site as soon as this month.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy demanded Russia return the plant to Ukraine's control.
"Only a full withdrawal of the Russians ... and the restoration of full Ukrainian control of the situation around the station can guarantee a resumption of nuclear security for all of Europe," he said in a video address.
France echoed Zelenskiy's demand and said Russia's occupation of the site endangered the world.
"The presence and actions of the Russian armed forces near the plant significantly increase the risk of an accident with potentially devastating consequences," the French foreign ministry said in a statement.
DEVASTATION AT RUSSIAN BASE
The main Ukrainian front lines have been comparatively static in recent weeks, but fighting has been intensifying lately in anticipation of what Ukraine says is a planned counter-offensive in the south.
Ukraine's General Staff on Friday reported widespread shelling and air attacks by Russian forces on scores of towns and military bases, especially in the east where Russia is trying to expand territory held on behalf of separatist proxies.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the eastern Donetsk region, said on Telegram seven civilians had been killed and 14 wounded in the past 24 hours.
Kyiv hopes that by acquiring new missiles capable of striking Russian logistics deep behind the front lines, it can turn the tide of the conflict in coming weeks.
Satellite pictures released on Thursday showed devastation at an air base deep in Russian-annexed Crimea, struck on Tuesday in what appeared to be some form of attack, although Kyiv has not claimed responsibility or explained how it was carried out.
Images from independent satellite firm Planet Labs showed three nearly identical craters in buildings at Russia's Saki air base. The base, on the southwest coast of Crimea, suffered extensive fire damage with at least eight destroyed warplanes visible.
Russia has denied aircraft were damaged and said explosions at the base were accidental. Kyiv neither confirmed nor denied any role in the blasts, but noted that the initial explosions took place simultaneously hundreds of metres apart, which would appear to rule out an accident.
The base is beyond the range of advanced U.S. rockets Ukraine has deployed since last month, but within the range of more powerful versions that Kyiv has requested from the West.
(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Philippa Fletcher)