KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian authorities have started evacuating civilians from recently-liberated areas of the southern Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, fearing that Russian damage to the infrastructure and the lack of heat, power and water is too severe for people to endure the upcoming winter, officials said Monday. The evacuations come as rolling blackouts plague most of the country.
Residents of the two southern regions, which have been shelled for months by Russian forces, have been advised to move to safer areas in the central and and western parts of the country, said Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
The government will provide “transportation, accommodation, medical care," she said.
The evacuations come more than a week after Ukraine retook the city of Kherson, which is on the western bank of the Dnieper River, and areas around it. The liberation marked a major battlefield gain for Ukraine, but the evacuations now highlight the difficulties the country is facing following heavy Russian shelling of its power infrastructure as freezing weather sets in.
Ukraine is known for its brutal winter weather, and snow has already covered Kyiv, the capital, and other cities.
Russia has set up defense lines along the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, fearing that Ukrainian forces would push deeper into the region. In the weeks before Ukraine's successful counteroffensive, it encouraged and helped tens of thousands of Kherson city residents to evacuate to Russian-held areas.
On Monday, Russian-installed authorities in the Kherson region also urged residents to evacuate an area on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River that Moscow now controls. Officials cited a high level of military fighting in the Kakhovskiy district as they asked residents to go to evacuation points.
Since Ukraine retook the city of Kherson just over a week ago, Russia has pounded Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure from the air, causing widespread blackouts and leaving millions of Ukrainians without heat, power or water.
To cope with the power shortages, four-hour or longer power outages were scheduled Monday in 15 of Ukraine's 27 regions, according to Volodymyr Kudrytsky, the head of Ukraine’s state grid operator, Ukrenergo. More than 40% of the country’s energy facilities have been damaged by Russian missile strikes in recent weeks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday called on NATO nations and allies to recognize Russia as a terrorist state, saying that Russia's shelling of energy supplies was tantamount “to the use of a weapon of mass destruction.” Zelenskyy also urged even stricter sanctions against Russia and appealed for more air defense aid for Ukraine.
“The terrorist state needs to see that they do not stand a chance,” he told NATO’s 68th Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Madrid in a video address.
On Sunday, powerful explosions from shelling shook Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The International Atomtic Energy Agency, the global nuclear watchdog, called for “urgent measures to help prevent a nuclear accident” in the Russian-occupied facility.
Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for the shelling that came after weeks of relative calm. The area has been the site of fighting ever since Russian forces occupied the plant soon after their Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, sparking fears of a nuclear accident.
On Monday, Russia’s nuclear plant operator, Rosatom, conceded that there is a risk of a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia power plant. Rosatom head Alexei Likhachyov said the company held talks with the IAEA overnight, and again blamed Kyiv for the situation.
“Apparently, Kyiv considers a small nuclear incident acceptable," said Likhachyov, “Everything must be done so that no one even thinks about encroaching on the safety of the nuclear power plant."
There was no immediate Ukrainian reaction to Likhachyov's comments.
In fighting elsewhere, at least four civilians were killed and eight more were wounded in Ukraine over the past 24 hours, deputy head of the country’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said Monday.
A Russian missile strike in the northeast Kharkiv region on Sunday night killed one person and left two more wounded, according to Kharkiv's governor. The strike hit a residential building in the village of Shevchenkove, killing a 38-year-old woman.
One person was wounded overnight in the Dnipropetrovsk region, where Russian forces shelled the city of Nikopol and areas around it, Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. Nikopol lies across the river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.
In the eastern Donetsk region, which is partially controlled by Moscow, Russian forces shelled 14 towns and villages, the region’s Ukrainian governor said.
Heavy fighting was ongoing near the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, where a school was damaged by shelling. In Makiivka, which is under Russian control, an oil depot was hit and caught fire, local Moscow-installed authorities said.
Russian-installed authorities said more than 105,000 people in the province’s capital, Donetsk, were left without electricity on Monday after Ukrainian shelling damaged power lines. One person was killed by the shelling, officials said, and 59 miners were trapped underground after power was cut off to four coal mines in the city.
In the neighboring Luhansk region, most of which is under Russian control, the Ukrainian army is advancing towards the key cities of Kreminna and Svatove, where the Russians have set up a line of defense, according to Luhansk’s Ukrainian Gov. Serhiy Haidai.
“There are successes and the Ukrainian army is moving very slowly, but it will be much more difficult for Russians to defend themselves after Svatove and Kreminna (are retaken)," Haidai told Ukrainian television.
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