By JOHN LEICESTER (Associated Press)
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian authorities have started evacuating civilians from the recently-liberated areas of the Kherson region and the neighboring province of Mykolaiv, fearing that damage to the infrastructure is too severe for people to endure the upcoming winter, officials said Monday.
Residents of the two southern regions, regularly shelled in the past 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 and areas around it. The liberation of the area marked a major battlefield gain, while the evacuations now highlight the difficulties the country is facing following heavy Russian shelling of its power infrastructure as winter weather sets in.
Russian-installed authorities in the Kherson region on Monday also reiterated their call to people to evacuate an area on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, which Moscow now controls. Officials cited a “high level of military treat” in the Kakhovskiy district as they asked residents to go to evacuation points.
Russia has set up defense lines along the eastern bank of the Dnieper River, fearing that Ukrainian forces would push deeper into the region..
Since Ukraine retook the Kherson city just over a week ago, Russia has stepped up pounding Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure from the air, causing widespread blackouts and leaving millions of Ukrainians without heat, power or water as frigid cold and snow blankets the capital, Kyiv, and other cities.
In 15 Ukrainian regions, four-hour or longer power outages were expected Monday, according to Volodymyr Kudrytsky, the head of Ukraine’s state grid operator, Ukrenergo. More than 40% of the country’s energy facilities were damaged by Russian missile strikes in recent weeks.
On Sunday, powerful explosions from shelling shook Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The IAEA, 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 in the area. The area has been the site of fighting ever since Russian forces occupied the plant soon after their 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 the comments of Likhachyov, who was repeating unfounded Russian claims that Ukraine was planning some kind of nuclear incident to blame Russia for it.
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 Gov. Oleh Syniehubov. The strike hit a residential building in the Shevchenkove village, Syniehubov said, 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.
In the eastern Donetsk region, which is partially controlled by Moscow, Russian forces shelled 14 towns and villages, the region’s Ukrainian Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Heavy fighting was ongoing in the region near the city Bakhmut, where a school was damaged by shelling. In Makiivka, which is under Russian control, an oil depot was hit with “an explosive object” and caught fire, local Moscow-installed authorities said.
Russian-installed authorities later said that more than 105,000 consumers 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 in 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 Governor 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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