Multiple blasts have rocked Russian-annexed Crimea with a pro-Moscow official accusing Kyiv of launching more than 10 drone attacks, as air raid sirens also blared for several hours overnight across most of Ukraine.
The alleged drone attacks on Sunday came as the United Nations nuclear chief warned of “dangerous” conditions around the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, and the head of the Wagner paramilitary force called on Moscow to let Chechen fighters relieve his forces at the front-line city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
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Officials and media said Russian air defence systems had repelled the Ukrainian drone attacks and that at least three of the uncrewed vehicles were downed over the port city of Sevastopol in Crimea.
“No objects [in Sevastopol] were damaged,” said Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Moscow-installed governor of Sevastopol, on the Telegram messaging app.
There were no immediate details of any damage from the attacks elsewhere on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Baza, a Telegram channel with links to Russia’s law enforcement agencies, reported earlier on Sunday that there were no casualties in what it said was a series of attacks on Crimea.
Al Jazeera was not able to independently verify the reports.
There was no immediate comment from Kyiv.
Meanwhile in Ukraine, air raid alerts blared for several hours overnight into early Sunday over roughly two-thirds of the country, with officials saying that air defence systems shot down a number of drones, including one over Kyiv’s airspace.
“During the last air alert, an enemy reconnaissance UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] was detected in the airspace of Kyiv,” the military administration of Kyiv said on the Telegram messaging app.
“The drone was destroyed … Preliminarily, there have been no casualties or destruction.”
The alerts extended from the capital Kyiv and regions to the west of it through to all regions in the east as well as south to Kherson region.
Local officials in several Ukrainian regions reported that air defence systems were deployed overnight, but there was no immediate information early on Sunday on potential casualties or damages.
‘Dangerous situation’ near Zaporizhzhia
The developments came as Ukraine prepares to launch a counteroffensive to take back territory in the east that Russia annexed illegally after invading in February last year.
Raids on Russian-held targets have intensified in the past two weeks, especially in Crimea, while Moscow — citing intensified Ukrainian shelling — has ordered the temporary evacuation of families with children and the elderly from the occupied city of Enerhodar, near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station.
Russian forces control about 80 percent of the Zaporizhia region.
The evacuations prompted Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to call for measures to ensure the plant’s safe operations.
“The general situation in the area near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” Grossi said in a statement on the IAEA’s website. “I’m extremely concerned about the very real nuclear safety and security risks facing the plant.”
While the nuclear plant’s staff remain onsite, IAEA experts have “received information that the announced evacuation of residents from the town of Enerhodar — where most plant staff live — has started and they are closely monitoring the situation for any potential impact on nuclear safety and security,” Grossi added.
Meanwhile, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, asked Moscow to let him hand over his position to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces.
“I ask you to issue a combat order before 00:00 on May 10 concerning the transfer of the positions of the Wagner paramilitary units in Bakhmut and its periphery, to the units of the Akhmat battalion,” Prigozhin said in a letter to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The Akhmat battalion refers to combat units under the command of strongman Kadyrov, who has ruled Russia’s Muslim-majority republic Chechnya for the last decade and a half.
Wagner fighters have led the battle for Bakhmut, spearheading the grinding, months-long Russian assault on the city, and almost capturing it in what has been the longest and bloodiest battle of the Russian campaign in Ukraine.
But relations between Prigozhin and the Russian army, which have long been strained, reached a boiling point this week.
In a series of scathing videos on Friday, Prigozhin blamed Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov for “tens of thousands” of killed and wounded Russian fighters in Ukraine.
Prigozhin said his fighters would be forced to pull out because of a lack of ammunition, blaming the defence ministry.
Kadyrov said on Telegram on Friday that his forces were “ready to move” towards Bakhmut. “The soldiers are on alert, we are just waiting for orders,” he said.
The Ukrainian military has meanwhile dismissed Prigozhin’s claims of a withdrawal, saying Wagner mercenary fighters were reinforcing positions in Bakhmut with the likely intention to try and seize the destroyed city before Russia marks the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II on May 9.
“We are now seeing them pulling [fighters] from the entire offensive line where the Wagner fighters were, they are pulling [them] to the Bakhmut direction,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Ukrainian television.