Ukraine has accused Russia of “nuclear terrorism” following a missile attack near an atomic plant as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed further gains in an eastern counteroffensive saying invading Russian troops were “clearly in a panic”.
The Russian missile struck within 300 metres (328 yards) of the reactors at the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Yuzhnoukrainsk in southern Mykolaiv province on Monday, leaving a hole 2 metres (6.5 feet) deep and 4 metres (13 feet) wide, according to Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom.
The reactors were operating normally and no employees were injured, it said.
The proximity of the strike, however, has renewed fears that Russia’s nearly seven-month-long war in Ukraine might produce a radiation disaster.
This nuclear power station is Ukraine’s second-largest after the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which has repeatedly come under fire.
Following recent battlefield setbacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened last week to step up Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. Throughout the war, Russia has targeted Ukraine’s electricity generation and transmission equipment, causing blackouts and endangering the safety systems of the country’s nuclear power plants.
The industrial complex that includes the South Ukraine plant sits along the Southern Bug River about 300km (190 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv. The attack also caused the temporary shutdown of a nearby hydroelectric power plant, shattered more than 100 windows at the complex and severed three power lines, Ukrainian authorities said.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry released a black-and-white video showing two large fireballs erupting one after the other in the dark, followed by incandescent showers of sparks, 19 minutes after midnight.
The ministry and Energoatom called the attack “nuclear terrorism”.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow.
Russia ‘palpably panicking’
The missile attack came amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region that was hailed as a potential turning point in the war.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia was palpably panicking as his country’s military pressed farther east, paving the way for a potential assault on Moscow’s occupation forces in the Donbas region.
“The occupiers are clearly in a panic,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address, adding that he was now focused on “speed” in liberated areas. “The speed at which our troops are moving. The speed in restoring normal life,” he said.
The Ukrainian leader also hinted he would use a video address to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday to call on countries to accelerate weapons and aid deliveries. “We are doing everything to ensure Ukraine’s needs are met at all levels – defence, financial, economic, diplomatic,” he said.
Ukraine’s armed forces had regained complete control of the village of Bilohorivka, and were preparing to retake all of Luhansk province from Russian occupiers, provincial Governor Serhiy Gaidai said. The village is only 10 km (6 miles) west of Lysychansk city, which fell to the Russians after weeks of grinding battles in July.
“There will be fighting for every centimetre,” Gaidai wrote on Telegram. “The enemy is preparing their defence. So we will not simply march in.”
Luhansk and the neighbouring province of Donetsk comprise the industrialised eastern region of Donbas, which Moscow says it intends to seize as a primary aim of what it calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops have begun to push into Luhansk since driving Russian forces out of northeastern Kharkiv province in their lightning counter-offensive this month.
In a sign of nervousness from a Moscow-backed administration in Donbas about the success of Ukraine’s recent offensive, its leader called for urgent referendums on the region becoming part of Russia. Denis Pushilin, head of the Moscow-based separatist administration in Donetsk, called on his fellow separatist leader in Luhansk to combine efforts toward preparing a referendum on joining Russia.
In the south, where another Ukrainian counter-offensive has been making slower progress, Ukraine’s armed forces said they had sunk a barge carrying Russian troops and equipment across a river near Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region.
“Attempts to build a crossing failed to withstand fire from Ukrainian forces and were halted. The barge … became an addition to the occupiers’ submarine force,” the military said in a statement on Facebook.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify either side’s battlefield reports.
While Zelenskyy said Ukraine was “stabilising” the situation in the northeastern Kharkiv region, which is now largely back in Ukrainian hands, Russian forces are fighting to hold on in the city of Kupiansk, which is split in two by the Oskil River.
On Monday, a steady stream of civilians was seeking transport out of Kupiansk, fleeing the shellfire and what locals said was the weeklong failure of water and electricity supplies.
“It was impossible to stay where we were living,” 56-year-old Lyudmyla, who braved the constant crack of shells to cross the river from the disputed east bank to the relative safety of the west, told the AFP news agency.
“There was incoming fire not just every day, but literally every hour. It’s very tough there, on the other bank of the river.”