- Huge Soviet-era dam supplies water to nuclear power plant, Crimea
- Russia and Ukraine blame each other for dam break
- UN atomic agency: no immediate risk for nuclear safety
- The dam is located in the Russian-occupied part of the Kherson region
- Russia says it is repelling Ukrainian attacks in the east
KIEV, June 6 (Reuters) – A torrent of water burst through a hole in a dam on the Dnipro River separating Russian and Ukrainian forces in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, flooding a swath of the war zone and forcing villagers to flee.
Ukraine has accused Russia of blowing up the dam from within in a deliberate war crime. Officials installed in Russia gave conflicting accounts, some blaming the Ukrainian bombing, others saying the dam had exploded on its own.
The Nova Kakhovka Dam supplies water to the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, both under Russian control. The vast reservoir behind it is a major geographical feature of southern Ukraine, 240 km (150 mi) long and up to 23 km (14 mi) wide. A swathe of countryside lies in the floodplain below.
The dam’s destruction creates a new humanitarian disaster in the center of the war zone and transforms the front lines just as Ukraine is unleashing a long-awaited counter-offensive to drive Russian troops from its territory.
Russia has controlled the dam since the start of the war, although Ukrainian forces retook the northern bank of the river last year. Both sides had long accused the other of planning to destroy it.
“Russian terrorists. The destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam only confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian territory,” wrote President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on messaging app Telegram.
The Russians had “carried out an internal detonation of the structures” of the dam. “About 80 settlements are in the flood zone,” he said on Telegram.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Kherson region accused Kyiv of targeting the dam with missiles to distract attention from what he called the failures of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the east. However, other Russian-installed officials said the dam burst on its own due to earlier damage.
Neither side offered immediate evidence proving who was at fault.
The vast reservoir above the dam supplies fresh water to large swathes of farmland, including the Crimea peninsula, which Russia says it annexed in 2014. It also supplies cooling water for Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, located in the territory controlled by Russia on the southern shore.
The United Nations nuclear watchdog said on Twitter that it was monitoring the situation closely, but that “there was no immediate risk to nuclear safety at the facility”.
Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom also said the dam breach poses no threat to the plant for now and said the situation was being monitored.
The water level in the city immediately adjacent to the burst dam could rise as much as 12 meters, its Russia-seated mayor Vladimir Leontyev said on messaging app Telegram.
The video showed water rushing through the remains of the dam, which is 30 meters (yards) high and 3.2 km (2 miles) long.
About 22,000 people living in 14 settlements in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region are at risk of flooding, Russia’s RIA news agency said, citing the Moscow-based head of the region. Kherson is one of five regions, including Crimea, that Moscow says it has annexed.
The Russian-backed governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said there was a risk that the water level in the northern Crimean channel, which brings fresh water to the peninsula from the Dnipro River, could drop. Crimea had sufficient water reserves for the time being and the level of risk would become clear in the next few days.
A Russian-installed official in the town of Nova Kakhovka said residents of about 300 homes had been evacuated, state news agency TASS reported. He said it would probably be impossible to fix the dam.
The dam breach comes as Ukraine prepares its long-awaited counter-offensive to oust Russian forces from territory they captured during more than 15 months of fighting.
Russia said it had thwarted another Ukrainian offensive in eastern Donetsk and inflicted heavy casualties. Kiev has maintained a strict silence on the counter-offensive but has rejected Russia’s claims that it had foiled Ukrainian assaults.
Russia has also launched a new wave of night airstrikes on Kiev. Ukraine said its air defense systems shot down more than 20 cruise missiles on their approach to the capital.
Shebekino district in Russia’s Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border came under renewed shelling on Tuesday, local authorities said, urging residents to take cover. Anti-government Russian fighters based in Ukraine say they have infiltrated the area, taking over villages near the border.
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said on Telegram that Russian forces blew up the dam “in a panic” in what it called “a clear act of terrorism and a war crime, which will prove in an international court”.
Zelenskiy will hold an emergency meeting on the dam collapse, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said on Twitter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24 last year in what the Kremlin expected to be a quick operation, but his forces suffered a string of defeats and regrouped in the country’s east.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops dug in over the winter, besieging the eastern city of Bakhmut for months and preparing for an expected Ukrainian counterattack.
Ukrainian officials have made it clear they will not comment on the start of their campaign, though in his Monday night speech Zelenskiy was cryptic, hailing “the news we’ve been waiting for” and moving forward to Bakhmut in Donetsk.
Russia says it thwarted a major Ukrainian attack in the Donetsk region over the weekend and the defense ministry said on Tuesday that a fresh Ukrainian assault had also been repulsed.
Writing in Telegram, Russian militia leader Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin said Moscow’s claims of huge Ukrainian losses were “simply wild and preposterous science fiction”.
Reporting from the Reuters offices, Lidia Kelly and Ron Popeski; Written by Stephen Coates and Gareth Jones; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Michael Perry, Peter Graff
Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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