The head of the United Nations has called for an immediate halt to fighting around Europe’s biggest atomic power station in southeastern Ukraine, as the country’s president said Russia’s “nuclear terrorism” had placed all of Europe “a few steps” from catastrophe.
Concern over the fate of the Zaporizhzhia power plant in a Russian-held part of Ukraine grew amid renewed shelling in the area, and as satellite images showed that at least eight warplanes had been destroyed in mysterious explosions at a Russian airbase in occupied Crimea.
“I am calling for all military activities in the immediate vicinity of the plant to cease immediately and not to target its facilities or surroundings,” UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said on Thursday.
“I urge the withdrawal of any military personnel and equipment from the plant… The facility must not be used as part of any military operation,” he added, calling for the establishment of a “safe perimeter of demilitarisation to ensure the safety of the area”.
“We must be clear that any potential damage to Zaporizhzhia or any other nuclear facilities in Ukraine, or anywhere else, could lead to catastrophic consequences not only for the immediate vicinity, but for the region and beyond. This is wholly unacceptable.”
Russian troops seized the plant and its six nuclear reactors in March but it is still operated by Ukrainian technicians, and the warring neighbours accuse each other of shelling the facility and damaging power lines, radiation sensors and injuring at least one employee.
Kyiv says Russia is using the power station as a “nuclear shield” – storing armoured vehicles, heavy weapons and ammunition there, while laying mines around the site and firing from it at nearby Ukrainian positions.
“Russia could cause the biggest nuclear accident in history at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant … and in essence it would be the same as Russia using nuclear weapons,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday.
“Russia has turned the nuclear plant into a battlefield … putting the whole of Europe at risk of a nuclear disaster,” he added, accusing Moscow’s military of firing long-range missiles over other atomic power stations in Ukraine in a display of “nuclear terrorism”.
“None of us will be able to stop the wind if it carries radiation. But all together we can stop a terrorist state. And the sooner we stop Russia, the sooner Europe and the world will be able to feel safe again,” he said by video link to defence ministers of western states.
Satellite images showed the wreckage of least eight Russian warplanes in the scorched ruins of Saky airbase in Crimea, two days after explosions that Moscow claimed had done no damage to military hardware and were caused by lax safety procedures.
Several explosions were reported on Wednesday night at an airfield in Belarus from which Russia launches attacks on nearby Ukraine, which Minsk blamed on a piece of equipment catching fire.
It is not clear if Ukraine’s forces were involved in either incident, but Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr Zelenskiy, said: “The epidemic of technical accidents at military airfields of Crimea and Belarus should be considered by Russia’s military as a warning: forget about Ukraine, take off the uniform and leave. Neither in occupied Crimea nor in occupied Belarus will you feel safe. Karma finds you anywhere.”