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Nuke plant comes under attack as fighting rages in Ukraine

Europe's largest nuclear power plant is on the front lines of the war in Ukraine and fears of a major catastrophe are growing after parts of the sprawling plant were struck by rockets. The war grinds on with Russia making slow advances in the east.

(CN) — In an extremely dangerous development, Europe's largest nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine was at the center of intense fighting on Monday with reports the plant was damaged after it came under attack over the weekend.

The Soviet-era Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station sits on Russia-controlled territory on the east bank of the manmade Kakhovka Reservoir along the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine. The opposite banks of the Dnieper, one of Europe's longest and biggest rivers, are controlled by Ukrainian forces. At the Kakhovka Reservoir, between 3 miles and 5 miles of water separate the two warring sides.

Since Friday, parts of the plant were damaged after coming under attack. By Monday, Russian authorities said the power facility was operating normally, but outside inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency have not yet been allowed to visit the site as both sides trade accusations.

“Any attack on nuclear power plants is a suicidal thing,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in Tokyo. “I hope that these attacks will end.” He said IAEA must be given access to the plant.

Russia accuses Ukrainian troops of firing on the plant from across the river. At least two high-voltage power lines, radiation sensors and a water pipeline were damaged, prompting an emergency shutdown of a power unit after a fire broke out. Windows in buildings were blown out and at least one worker was injured.

Kyiv alleges Russia is using the massive power plant as a military staging ground for troops and ammunition, blamed Russia for launching rockets against the plant and claimed it was wiring explosives to energy units in case Ukrainian forces recapture Zaporizhzhia.

The nuclear plant was seized by Russian forces in early March at the beginning of the invasion. But combat is growing more fierce in southern Ukraine as both sides build up their forces and fight for control over Black Sea ports, cities and territories.

On Monday, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, accused Ukraine of shelling the nuclear plant.

“It’s fraught with catastrophic consequences for vast territories, for the entire Europe,” he told reporters, as reported by Tass, a Russian state news agency.

Ukraine's state nuclear agency, Enerhoatom, said parts of the plant were “seriously damaged” after a station containing oxygen and nitrogen and an “auxiliary building” were struck by shelling. It accused Russia of firing on the plant.

Enerhoatom's personnel continue to run the plant, though Russian soldiers and staff from Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear corporation, are also on site.

Enerhoatom said the plant is “operating at risk of violating the norms of radiation and fire protection” and that the facility must be declared a demilitarized zone.

Fighting continues to rage in the main theater of the war, the eastern Donbas region.

For days, Russian artillery and airplanes have been pounding Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk region even harder than before. Slow Russian advances continued over the weekend against this heavily fortified section of the front line. So far, Russia has seized about 20% of Ukraine's territory, according to military maps.

Over the past eight years, Ukraine's army built a series of bunkers, trenches and other fortifications in Donbas as part of a “frozen war” between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists of the self-declared “people's republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. The heavy line of fortifications and fierce Ukrainian resistance has slowed progress by Russian and Ukrainian separatist forces.

As the war rages in Ukraine, a parallel diplomatic contest is playing out between Russia and the West to win sway over world leaders.

In recent weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been traveling hard in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to rally developing nations to Russia's side.

Since Russia's banishment from the U.S.-dominated financial system following the Ukraine invasion, the Kremlin has cranked up its efforts to create rival financial and trade systems. Russia is also reeling from massive Western sanctions.

Many analysts believe the war is strengthening the so-called BRICS association, which is made up of major emerging and developing counties. BRICS is an acronym for the group's major members: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. These countries – and others such as Pakistan – have not condemned Russia for its invasion.

In launching the Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to break U.S. dominance over world affairs – what is known as a “unipolar” system – and foster a “multi-polar” world order where the U.S. has to share power with other superpowers. Other non-Western major countries also are pushing to obtain more influence in world affairs, complicating the West's uncompromising stance on Russia.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in South Africa as part of a 10-day trip to Asia and Africa. He, like his Russian counterpart, is seeking to bring on allies and twist arms.

In South Africa, Blinken launched a new “U.S. Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa.” The State Department said the U.S. wants to make African countries “geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues of our day.”

Africa has become a central battleground in the diplomatic tug-of-war between the East and West as China, Russia, the European Union and the U.S. vie for more influence on the continent. Since the Ukraine invasion, Africa has faced growing concerns over famine due to the shutdown of grain and fertilizer shipments from Ukraine and Russia, two major food producers.

Upon taking the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden defined a clash between democracies and autocracies as the world's pivotal challenge.

Biden has launched strategies to counter China's growing economic, political and military power.

In 2021, Biden and his Western allies vowed to set up a global development fund to compete with China's Belt and Road Initiative and Biden launched a new military alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific region to contain China's military ambitions.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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