KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) — Russian forces began an assault Saturday on two key cities in the eastern Donetsk region and kept up rocket attacks and shelling on other Ukrainian cities, including one near Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant. Europe, Ukrainian military and local officials said.
Both cities, Bakhmut and Avdiivka, have been seen as key targets of Russia’s ongoing offensive in eastern Ukraine, with analysts saying Moscow needs to take Bakhmut if it wants to advance into the regional hubs of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
“In the Donetsk direction, the enemy is conducting an offensive operation, concentrating its main efforts in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka directions. It uses ground attacks and army aviation,” the General Staff of Ukraine said on Facebook.
The last Russian attack on Sloviansk was on July 30, but Ukrainian forces are strengthening their positions around the city in anticipation of further fighting.
“I think there will be no calm for a long time. Eventually, there will be an assault,” Col. Yurii Bereza, head of the national guard’s volunteer regiment, told The Associated Press.
Russian shelling killed five civilians and injured 14 others in the Donetsk region in the past day, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote on Telegram on Saturday, saying two people were killed in Poprosny, and one in Avdiivka, Soledar. and Pervomayskiy.
The governor of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region said three civilians were injured after Russian rockets landed on a residential neighborhood in Nikopol, a city across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The nuclear plant has been under Russian control since Moscow troops seized it early in the war.
“After midnight, the Russian army hit the Nikopol area with (Soviet-era) Grad rockets and the Kryvyi Rih area with cannon artillery,” Valentyn Reznichenko wrote on Telegram.
Another Russian missile strike overnight damaged unspecified infrastructure in the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia. On Thursday, Russia fired 60 rockets at Nikopol, damaging 50 residential buildings in the city of 107,000 people and leaving residents without power.
Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned this week that the situation is becoming more dangerous by the day at the Zaporizhzhia plant.
“All nuclear safety principles have been violated” at the plant, he said. “What is at stake is extremely serious.”
He expressed concern about the way the plant is being operated and the danger posed by the fighting around it. Experts from the US-based Institute for the Study of War said Russia is intentionally shelling the area, “putting Ukraine in a difficult position.”
The Ukrainian company that operates the nuclear power plant said on Saturday that Russian troops are using the basement of the plant to hide from Ukrainian shelling and have banned its Ukrainian personnel from going there.
“Ukrainian personnel still do not have access to these facilities, so in case of further shelling, people have no shelter and are in danger,” Enerhoatom, a Ukrainian state-owned company, said on its Telegram channel.
Enerhoatom said on Friday that Russian rockets had damaged facilities at the plant, including a nitrogen-oxygen unit and a high-voltage power line. Russian-appointed local officials acknowledged the damage but blamed the Ukrainians.
In other developments:
—- In southern Ukraine, two civilians were seriously injured Saturday after Russian forces fired rockets at the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv before dawn, according to regional authorities. That followed an attack Friday afternoon in Mykolaiv that killed one person and wounded 21 others.
—-In the Kherson region, south of Mykolaiv, the deputy mayor of the Russian-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka was in critical condition after an assassination attempt, the Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti said. , citing the deputy head of the Kherson region, most of which is under Russian control.
—-The first of three more ships carrying thousands of tons of maize from Ukraine anchored north of Istanbul on Saturday awaiting inspection, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said. The Panamanian-flagged Navi Star, carrying 33,000 tons of grain to Ireland, left Odessa on Friday. It is followed by the Turkish-flagged Polarnet and the Maltese-flagged Rojen, which between them transport more than 25,000 tons of maize from Chornomorsk. The joint inspection center was created to block the grain in Ukraine because of the war in the world. On Friday, the center inspected its first north-bound ship as it headed to Chornomorsk.
—-In the north, Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, and its surroundings were also hit by Russian rockets again overnight, according to regional governor Oleh Syniehubov. An 18-year-old in Chuhuiv, a town near Kharkiv, had to be hospitalized on Saturday after picking up an unexploded shell. Both Chuhuiv and Kharkiv are close to the Russian border and have suffered from sustained Russian shelling in recent weeks.
—-The neighboring region of Sumy, which also borders Russia, has also witnessed almost constant missile attacks and shelling. Its governor said on Saturday that the region had been attacked more than 60 times from Russian territory in the previous day and that an injured civilian had to be hospitalized.
—- On the ammunition front, Russia has started using Iranian combat drones in the war, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a YouTube, adding that Tehran had transferred 46 drones to the Russian military.
Joanna Kozlowska contributed from London.