By DEREK GATOPOULOS
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A team of U.N. inspectors made its way toward Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant Wednesday on a perilous, long-sought mission to help secure the site and reduce the risk of a catastrophe from the fighting raging around it.
Underscoring the danger, Kyiv and Moscow again accused each other of shelling the area around the complex, the biggest nuclear plant in Europe.
In recent days, the plant was temporarily knocked offline because of fire damage to a transmission line, heightening fears of a radiation leak or even a reactor meltdown. Officials have begun distributing anti-radiation iodine tablets to nearby residents.
The complex, a vital source of energy for Ukraine, has been occupied by Russian forces and run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the 6-month-old war.
Ukraine alleges Russia is using the plant as a shield, storing weapons there and launching attacks from around it, while Moscow accuses Ukraine of recklessly firing on the facility.
For months, as the fighting has played out, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has sought access to the plant, and world leaders have demanded the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency be allowed to inspect it.
With a team finally on the way in a convoy of vans and U.N.-marked SUVs, Rafael Grossi, the head of the agency, said he knew full well the implications of the unprecedented mission.
“We are going to a war zone. We are going to occupied territory,” he said upon departure early Wednesday from Kyiv.
He added that he had received “explicit guarantees” from Russia that the 14 experts would be able to do their work. The mission is expected to last several days.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the U.N. team had reached the city of Zaporizhzhia, about 120 kilometers (70 miles) by road from the plant, according to Energoatom, Ukraine’s nuclear power agency.
The world watched the mission’s progress with anxiety. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell renewed a call to Russia to fully demilitarize the area around the plant.
“They are playing games. They are gambling with the nuclear security,” Borrell said. “We cannot play war games in the neighborhood of a site like this.”
While the inspectors were on their way, Russia-backed local authorities accused Ukrainian forces of repeatedly shelling the plant grounds and city where it is situated, Enerhodar. They said drone strikes hit the plant’s administrative building and training center.
Yevhen Yevtushenko, head of the administration in the Ukrainian-held city of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the plant, retorted that the attacks were carried out by the Russians in a bid to make Ukraine look like the culprit.
Kyiv is seeking international assistance in taking back control of the area.
“We think that the mission should be a very important step to return (the plant) to Ukrainian government control by the end of the year,” Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galushchenko said.
In other developments:
— Ukrainian officials said automatic weapons fire was heard on the streets of southern Kherson and claimed Russian soldiers were searching homes for anti-Russian partisans. A surge in fighting in the Russian-occupied region this week stirred speculation early that Ukraine was beginning a counteroffensive.
— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said that in the Donetsk region in the east, four people were killed and two wounded in rocket attacks in the past day.
— Russia’s Gazprom stopped the flow of natural gas through a major pipeline to Western Europe early Wednesday for what it said would be a three-day shutdown for routine maintenance. German authorities cast doubt on that explanation.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine