The United Nations is calling for immediate access to a nuclear power plant under siege that Ukraine asserts is being hit by Russian rocket fire.
Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy said in an address that "another shelling by Russia was recorded" around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest nuclear power facility. Reports of heavy fighting along with artillery shelling in the area were reported Friday.
The head of the U.N. nuclear agency says there's "a real risk of nuclear disaster" unless the fighting stops, and inspectors are allowed inside the facility.
"This is a serious hour, a grave hour," said Rafael Grossi, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, during a U.N. Security Council meeting. "The IAEA must urgently be allowed to conduct a mission to Zaporizhzhia."
Russian forces who occupy the plant have been accused of using it as a shield to fire at Ukrainian army positions. There have been reports of heavy shelling in areas near the plant over the last two weeks.
"No one else has used a nuclear plant so obviously to threaten the whole world," President Zelenskyy said. "And absolutely everyone in the world should react immediately to expel the occupiers from the territory of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. This is a global interest, not just a Ukrainian need."
Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the shelling at the nuclear plant. Russian soldiers control the facility, but Ukrainian staff are continuing to operate the plant.
“We know that the Russians have been there for some time. We also know that the Russians have fired artillery, I think specifically rockets, from around the power plant,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters Friday, rejecting Russian allegations that the plant has been targeted by Ukrainian forces.
“I don't have any belief that the Ukrainians, who know very well what the impacts of hitting that power plant would be, have an interest in hitting the power plant,” the official added.
Separately, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned in a statement that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant “must not be used as part of any military operation.”
“Urgent agreement is needed at a technical level on a safe perimeter of demilitarization to ensure the safety of the area,” he added.
In another development, a senior Ukrainian official claimed 60 Russian pilots and technicians were killed and 100 people wounded at the Russian-operated Saky military airfield in western Crimea on Tuesday.
Russian claims that only munitions stored at the airfield exploded but Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to the minister of internal affairs, told The New York Times on Friday that was "a blatant lie."
The U.S. on Friday said its own assessment indicated that several Russian fighter jets, several Russian fighter-bombers and a Russian surveillance aircraft were destroyed, along with a “pretty significant cache of munitions.”
Satellite images taken earlier this week showed several fighter jets and at least five bombers destroyed at the base, according to a British military intelligence report.
Humanitarian grain shipments
The first U.N.-chartered vessel set to transport grain from Ukraine to Africa is set to dock in Ukraine Friday, according to the United Nations. It is the first shipment of humanitarian food assistance under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal to relieve a global food crisis.
The previous ships with wheat grain that were allowed to leave under the deal were non-humanitarian, and their cargoes had already been purchased by other nations or vendors.
Two of those ships left Ukrainian ports Friday. Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine's minister of infrastructure, wrote in a tweet that one of the vessels would be loaded with 23,000 metric tons of grain bound for Ethiopia. The African nation, along with Somalia and Kenya, is facing the worst drought in four decades.
"The wheat grain will go to the World Food Program's operations in Ethiopia, supporting WFP's Horn of Africa drought response as the threat of famine stalks the drought-hit region," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Friday. "It is one of many areas around the world where the near complete halt of Ukrainian grain and food on global market has made life even harder for families already struggling with rising hunger."
The ship MV Brave Commander is due to arrive in Yuzhne, east of Odesa on the Black Sea coast.
On July 22, Kyiv and Moscow signed a landmark deal with Turkey to unblock Black Sea grain deliveries, following Russia's February invasion of Ukraine.
Turkey has opened a special facility in Istanbul at the mouth of the Black Sea to oversee the exports. It is staffed by civilian and military officials from the warring sides and delegates from Turkey and the U.N.
Some information for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.