The fate of Ukraine’s second-biggest power plant was hanging in the balance after Russian-backed forces claimed to have captured it intact, but Kyiv did not confirm its seizure, saying only that fighting was under way nearby.
Seizing the Soviet-era coal-fired Vuhlehirsk power plant in eastern Ukraine would be Moscow’s first strategic gain in more than three weeks in what it calls its “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour.
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Russian and Russian-backed forces have been struggling to make meaningful progress on the ground since their capture in early July of the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk.
Unverified footage posted on social media on Wednesday appeared to show fighters from Russia’s Wagner private military company posing in front of the Vuhlehirsk power plant, which some Russian state media – citing Russian-backed officials – reported separately had been stormed.
Ukraine did not confirm the power plant’s capture and only said that “hostilities” were under way in two nearby areas. It said on Monday that “enemy units” had made some gains around the plant.
British military intelligence said on Wednesday that Wagner fighters had probably succeeded in making tactical advances in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine around the power plant and the nearby village of Novoluhanske.
It said some Ukrainian forces had probably withdrawn from the area.
Russia initially sought to capture the capital Kyiv in the early days of its invasion but later retreated, focusing its efforts on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk province that forms part of the Donbas, said at least one person had been killed by a Russian strike on a hotel in the town of Bakhmut, which is north of the power plant and a target that Russian forces have said they want to capture.
“According to preliminary information, there are dead and wounded; a rescue operation is under way,” Kyrylenko wrote on Facebook. The local emergency service said a toll of one dead and four wounded had been confirmed so far.
Ukraine hits bridge in Kherson
Russian forces meanwhile suffered a setback in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region after Ukrainian forces struck an important bridge straddling the Dnipro river with what a Russian-appointed local administrator said were United States-supplied high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said on Twitter the attacks on bridges over the Dnipro created an “impossible dilemma” for Russia.
Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Russian-installed regional administration in Kherson, confirmed the bridge had been hit overnight and traffic had been halted.
But he sought to downplay the damage, insisting that the attack would not affect the outcome of the hostilities “in any way”.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter that Russians could not “escape reality” and should “learn how to swim across the Dnipro River”.
You can call the Antonivsʹkyy bridge a mean of ru-air defense that intercepts all ua-missiles, but you cannot escape the reality – occupiers should learn how to swim across the Dnipro River. Or should leave Kherson while it is still possible. There may not be a third warning.
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) July 27, 2022
Ukrainian forces in recent weeks have been clawing back territory in the Kherson region, which fell to Russian forces easily and early after their invasion launched on February 24.
Their counteroffensive, supported by Western-supplied long-range artillery, has seen its forces push closer to Kherson city, which had a pre-war population of about 300,000 people.
Ukraine on Wednesday said it had restarted operations at its blockaded Black Sea ports as it moved closer to resuming grain exports with the opening of a coordination centre to oversee a United Nations-backed deal.
Kyiv has said it hopes to begin sending out the first of millions of tonnes of grain “this week” despite a missile strike by Russia over the weekend on the port in Odesa.
Ukraine’s navy said “work has resumed” at the export hubs to prepare for ships to be escorted through the mine-infested waters to reach world markets.
John Stawpert, manager for environment and trade at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), said there are about “100 ships stranded in the ports of the north and western Black Sea” but that not all of them will be able to transport Ukrainian grain to global markets.
“Of those [ships], about 50 will be able to carry this grain out,” Stawpert told Al Jazeera from London, where the ICS has its headquarters.
“How we crew them remains a question that needs to be answered,” he added.
The blockage of deliveries from two of the world’s biggest grain exporters has contributed to a spike in prices that has made food imports prohibitively expensive for some of the world’s poorest countries.