Russian forces Thursday shelled a southern Ukrainian city inundated by flooding in a catastrophic dam collapse, Ukrainian officials said, forcing a suspension of some rescue efforts hours after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy went to the area to assess the damage.
The fresh fighting came two days after the collapse of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper River set off a scramble to evacuate residents in dozens of flooded areas and get aid to those still there.
Officials on both sides said at least 14 people were killed in the flooding. Thousands of others were homeless, and tens of thousands were without drinking water after the collapse. Kyiv accused Moscow of blowing up the dam and its hydropower plant, which the Kremlin’s forces controlled, while Russia said Ukraine bombarded it.
The ensuing flooding has ruined crops, displaced land mines, wrought widespread environmental damage and set the stage for long-term electricity shortages. Exclusive drone footage captured by The Associated Press showed the ruined dam falling into the river and hundreds of homes, greenhouses and even a church submerged in the deluge.
Upriver from the dam, a supply of water used to cool Europe’s largest nuclear power plant was nearing critically low levels, Ukraine’s state hydroelectric company said. But the U.N.’s atomic energy watchdog on Thursday played down such concerns, saying that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant could draw water to cool its shut-down reactors from levels below those previously seen to be critically low.
Zelenskyy’s office said Moscow’s forces also continued to shell Ukrainian-held areas near the nuclear plant, which is under Russian control.
The high water brought new misery and death to a country suffering uncounted casualties after 15 months of war.
Vladimir Leontyev, the Kremlin-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, a Russian-occupied city adjacent to the dam, told Russian state TV that five residents there had died in the flooding. And Mykolaiv regional Gov. Vitalii Kim said one person had died in that region northwest of the city of Kherson.
Yevhen Ryshchuk, the mayor of Oleshky to the south who fled the town after the Russians took over, told The Associated Press that residents told him eight people had died so far in the flooding, with corpses floating to the surface. His tally could not immediately be verified.
Residents of Oleshky have accused Russian authorities in the town of not doing enough to help civilians, and they have formed a group of over 8,000 that is sharing messages about information such as stranded and trapped locals.
Ryshchuk said Russian forces are not letting people leave and are instead confiscating boats from residents and volunteers. That was confirmed by two volunteers, who told AP that the Russian military was taking away boats brought by volunteers. Volunteer Yaroslav Vasiliev said the Russian military seized three boats from volunteers on Wednesday.
From afar, relatives of Oleshky residents said Russian forces were only evacuating Russian passport holders there.
“My relatives said Russian soldiers were coming up to the house today by boat, but they said they would only take those with Russian passports,” said Viktoria Mironova-Baka, 32, speaking to AP by phone from Germany.
Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya urged Russia to grant access to the eastern bank of the river, which it occupies, to humanitarian personnel for evacuations.
“Even their soldiers are sitting on the trees expecting evacuation, and they’re not even taking care of their own soldiers,” Kyslytsya said from U.N. headquarters in New York.
In the city of Kherson, the largest municipality affected, Russian shelling echoed not far from a square where emergency crews and volunteers were dispensing aid. Nine people were wounded, including two emergency workers, a policemen, a doctor and volunteer from Germany.
As shells landed in floodwaters, rescuers suspended efforts to reach stranded residents and pets in an area that Zelenskyy had visited only hours earlier, officials told AP.
“The strikes began during evacuation of the residents, whose houses were flooded,” the Internal Affairs Ministry said. “Russia has abandoned people in calamity in the occupied part of Kherson region. It continues to prevent Ukraine from saving the most valuable — human lives.”
Zelenskyy visited an aid distribution point and a medical facility in Kherson, ordering officials to provide a “fair valuation” of the devastation to compensate residents, his office said in an update.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “has no plans at the current moment” to visit the affected Moscow-occupied areas, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Regional Gov. Vladimir Saldo, who was installed by Moscow to oversee the area that Russia occupies, accused Ukrainian troops of firing at an evacuation point in Hola Prystan, a Russian-occupied town. Saldo said in a Telegram post that two people, including a pregnant 33-year-old woman, were killed and that two others were wounded. It was not immediately possible to verify his account.
Fighting has intensified along the more than 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line from Kherson on the Black Sea to Ukraine’s border with Russia — in what some experts and officials say could be part of a long-expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. Kyiv has said it won’t announce the start of any such campaign.
The destruction of the dam prompted the United Nations and local officials to say that the most immediate concerns for affected areas were access to fresh water and avoiding contact with floodwaters contaminated by explosives and industrial chemicals.
Officials say more than 6,000 people have been evacuated on both sides of the river. But the true scale of the disaster remained unclear for the affected region.
In areas they control, Russian-appointed authorities said nearly two dozen people have been hospitalized, 4,280 people have been evacuated and 14,000 buildings have been flooded.
Russian officials say the dam’s destruction will eventually halt fresh water supplies to southern Ukraine and Russian-controlled Crimea, even though the peninsula has enough fresh water for now, with its reservoirs 80% full.
Ukrainian authorities cut off water supplies to Crimea after Moscow’s illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014, and Putin cited the need to restore them as a main reason for his decision to invade Ukraine.
Regional Gov. Oleksandr Prokudin said about 600 square kilometers (231 square miles) of the region were submerged — more than two-thirds of that on the Russian-controlled eastern bank of the Dnieper.
President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, a key Putin ally, said Kyiv blew up the dam to distract attention from what it described as a botched attempt to launch its counteroffensive.
Ukrainian authorities have largely kept quiet about recent battlefield developments amid growing reports of intensified fighting that could add up to the long-awaited counteroffensive.
In a podcast Wednesday, Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, a U.S. research group, said fighting had taken a “more qualitative turn” with Ukrainian forces appearing to mount offensive operations near the eastern town of Velyka Novosilka and other points in southern part of the Donetsk region, as well as on its border with Zaporizhzhia province.
“These attacks I don’t believe to be the main offensive effort, but they mark what I think is the beginning of the Ukrainian offensive,” he said.
Ukrainian armed forces spokesman Valerii Shershen acknowledged “increased activity” in the Zaporizhzhia region, but added he “would not call it something serious.”