Ukraine war: Counteroffensive underway in Russia-held south – USA TODAY

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  • Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Monday he is leading the mission.
  • The plant has caught in the middle of intense fighting for weeks between Ukrainian and Russian troops.
  • Each side has blamed the other for attacks that have damaged some areas of the plant.

The Ukraine military said Monday that it had launched what appears to be the long-awaited offensive to liberate a swath of southern Ukraine occupied for months by Russian forces.

Also Monday, an international atomic energy official said his team was “now on its way” to the troubled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in eastern Ukraine that has been a focal point for missile strikes and fears of an impending nuclear disaster.

Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Operational Command South, said the military had launched an offensive across much of the southern region, and Russian troops “do not want to go on the attack and are stationed on their fortified lines.” 

The Ukrainians have recaptured four villages in the south that were under Russian control and are targeting the city of Kherson, which fell to the invading forces early in the war, CNN reported.

Expectation of a major counteroffensive to liberate the region has been mounting since Ukraine defense officials said two months ago that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had ordered the push.

Last week, presidential spokesman Mykhailo Podolyak said that the latest, $3 billion military investment from the U.S. would make the offensive possible. On Monday, Podolyak made veiled references to the effort on social media.

“Today, the only possible option for negotiations with Russia is being conducted by a special Ukrainian delegation in the southern and other directions of the front line,” Podolyak said, referring to Ukraine troops. “Negotiations’ are going well. We expect new ‘compromises’ in the form of ‘gestures of goodwill.'”

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Ukraine forces, armed with modern rocket systems and other equipment provided by the U.S. and other western nations, have been making modest advances in recent days toward Kherson, the only regional capital to fall to Russian forces since the invasion began Feb. 24. 

As the offensive gained momentum, Podolyak counseled caution.

“I understand our desires and dreams,” Podolyak said. “But still I propose … cautious commentary regarding any of our military actions.”

In the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, an international atomic energy official said his team was “now on its way” to the nuclear power plant.

“The day has come, @IAEAorg’s Support and Assistance Mission to #Zaporizhzhya (ISAMZ) is now on its way,” Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, tweeted Monday. “We must protect the safety and security of #Ukraine’s and Europe’s biggest nuclear facility. Proud to lead this mission which will be in #ZNPP later this week.”

Grossi said his team will assess the damage to the plant and its main and backup safety and security systems, and evaluate the working conditions of the control room staff. The team also will “undertake urgent safeguards activities to verify that nuclear material is used only for peaceful purposes.”

The plant, Europe’s largest, has for weeks been caught in the middle of intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops. Last week, the plant was temporarily disconnected from the power grid for the first time ever when fires damaged the sole transmission line, Ukraine officials said. That led to a massive blackout across the region.

The U.N. and international atomic energy officials have been trying for weeks to gain access to the plant, warning that continued fighting in the area could trigger a disastrous accident. Russia has controlled the plant and the area around it for several months, but Ukrainian workers operate it. Fighting in the area has been constant, and minor damage to the plant is occasionally reported.

Zelenskyy has accused Russia of storing weapons at the plant and launching attacks from around it, essentially using the plant for cover. Zelenskyy says Russia’s military actions there amount to “nuclear blackmail.” Moscow, meanwhile, accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the facility.

Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin had recently signaled support for international inspectors to visit the plant. Zelenskyy said Friday that a delegation of Ukrainian diplomats, United Nations diplomats and the IAEA are “working out specific details” of a mission to be sent to the power plant.