KHERSON (Reuters) – An attack on a major Russian-controlled dam in southern Ukraine on Tuesday flooded more than two dozen villages and forced the evacuation of 17,000 people, sparking fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Washington warned that there would be “probably as many dead” as Moscow and Kyiv They traded blame for blowing a hole in the Kakhovka Dam, which is on the front line and provides cooling water for Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
Kiev said the destruction of the dam – which Russia seized in the first hours of the war – was an attempt by Moscow to derail its long-awaited offensive, which the Ukrainian president assured would not be affected.
Diplomatic sources said that an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council is scheduled for late Tuesday night at the request of Russia and Ukraine.
The United Nations has warned that hundreds of thousands could be affected on both sides of the front line.
People in Kherson, the largest population center nearby, headed for higher ground as the waters flowed into the Dnipro River.
“There is shooting and now there is a flood,” said Lyudmila, who loaded a washing machine onto a trolley mounted in an old Soviet car.
“Everything will die here,” he added as water from the dam poured into the city, the scene of heavy fighting in 2022.
Ukrainian authorities said 17,000 people had been evacuated and 24 villages were flooded.
“More than 40,000 people are at risk of flooding,” Prosecutor General Andrei Kostin said, adding that another 25,000 people on the Russian-occupied side of the Dnipro River must be evacuated.
Vladimir Leontyev, the mayor of the Moscow-built city of Nova Kakhovka where the dam is located, said the city was under water and hundreds of people had been evacuated.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky He accused Russia of detonating an “environmental bomb of mass destruction”, saying authorities expected up to 80 settlements to be inundated by floods and urging the world to “respond”.
“This crime carries enormous threats and will have serious consequences for people’s lives and the environment,” Zelensky said.
But he added that the explosion “did not affect Ukraine’s ability to deoccupy its territory.”
Last October, Zelensky accused Russia of planting mines in the dam, warning that its destruction would stimulate a new wave of refugees to Europe.
Kiev said 150 tons of motor oil had spilled into the river and the Ministry of Agriculture said about 10,000 hectares of agricultural land on the right bank of the river would be flooded and “several times more” on the left bank.
Western powers blamed Russia for the damage, with European Commissioner Charles Michel calling it a “war crime”, while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the breach of the dam was “outrageous”.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the United States “cannot definitively say what happened at this point.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the country’s military and intelligence agencies were investigating whether Russia blew up the dam, but that it was “too early” to say definitively.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the attack “another devastating consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
“Today’s tragedy is another example of the terrible price of war on people,” he said.
But Russia said the dam was partially destroyed by “multiple strikes” from Ukrainian forces and urged the world to condemn Kiev’s “criminal actions”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the destruction was the result of “intentional sabotage on the Ukrainian side”.
The Soviet-era dam, built in the 1950s, sits on the Dnipro River, which provides cooling water for the Russian-occupied Zaporizhia nuclear power plant some 150 kilometers (90 miles) away.
Moscow and Kiev offered conflicting assessments of the facility’s safety.
The director of the plant installed in Russia, Yuriy Chernyshuk, said the water levels in the cooling pond had not changed and “at the moment, there is no security threat to the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.”
Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, suffered the devastating Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and its authorities sounded the alarm about Kakhovka’s breach.
“The world once again finds itself on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe, because the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant has lost its source of cooling. This danger is now rapidly increasing,” said Mykhailo Podolak, Zelensky’s aide.
Ukraine’s nuclear power company Energoatom said the water level in the Kakhovka reservoir was “declining rapidly, which is an additional threat” to the Zaporizhzhia plant.
The UN humanitarian agency said it was concerned about the “serious humanitarian impact on hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the front line”.
“Flooding and fast-moving water can move mines and explosive ordnance to new areas previously assessed as safe, putting more people at risk.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter that the EU pledged “the necessary assistance and humanitarian aid to mitigate the consequences of this Russian-made disaster”.


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