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International Nuclear Inspectors Arrive in Zaporizhzhia to Inspect Power Plant

Yesenia Harris

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The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency says the IAEA’s mission in Ukraine is to try to avert an accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

United Nations nuclear inspectors set off for Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on Wednesday, saying their mission was to prevent a nuclear accident and try to stabilize the situation after weeks of shelling nearby.

A Reuters reporter following the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team in a convoy from the capital Kyiv said the inspectors arrived in the nearby city of Zaporizhzhia, where they were likely to spend the night before visiting the plant, which is on territory controlled by Russia, on Thursday.

Russian-installed officials in the area near the power station suggested the visit might last only one day, while IAEA and Ukrainian officials suggested it would last longer.

“The mission will take a few days. If we are able to establish a permanent presence, or a continued presence, then it’s going to be prolonged. But this first segment is going to take a few days,” IAEA director general Rafael Grossi told reporters at a hotel in Zaporizhzhia.

Before departing Kyiv, Grossi had told reporters the team was “going to a war zone” and had received “explicit guarantees” of access from both the Russian federation and Ukraine.

Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant soon after they launched their Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and it is close to front lines. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Prospects for demilitarization at site unclear

Russia captured the plant, Europe’s largest, in early March as part of what Moscow calls its “special military operation,” something Kyiv and the West have described as an unprovoked invasion designed to grab land and erase Ukrainian identity.

A Russian military force has been at the plant ever since, with a Ukrainian workforce continuing to run the facility.

The United States has urged a complete shutdown of the plant and called for a demilitarized zone around it.

WATCH | What the IAEA inspectors hope to accomplish:

UN nuclear energy team to visit Ukraine plant this week

2 days ago

A team with the International Atomic Energy Agency will inspect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine as fears persisted that fighting in the vicinity could cause a radiation leak.

Ukrainian Energy Minister German Galuschenko said Thursday the IAEA inspection was a step towards “deoccupying and demilitarizing” the site. Russia has said it has no intention of withdrawing its forces for now.

Asked about plans for a demilitarized zone at the plant, Grossi said this was a matter of political will and that his team was on a technical mission, with one of the main priorities being able to talk to the Ukrainian technicians running the plant.

The plant traditionally supplies Ukraine with 20 per cent of its electricity needs. The Interfax news agency quoted a Russian-appointed Zaporizhzhia government official as saying on Wednesday that two of the plant’s six reactors were running.

Ukraine claims ‘successes’ in fighting in south

On the battlefield, Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy in a late-night address on Tuesday said Ukrainian forces were attacking Russian positions in Ukraine along the entire front line in an offensive to try to retake the south. Zelenskyy said his forces were also on the offensive in the east.

Russia captured large tracts of southern Ukraine near the Black Sea coast in the early weeks of the six-month-old war, including in the Kherson region, which lies north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

Ukraine sees recapturing the region as crucial to prevent Russian attempts to seize more territory further west that could eventually cut off its access to the Black Sea.

WATCH l The aftermath of deadly strikes in Ukraine’s second-largest city:

Kharkiv shelling shatters buildings, terrifies residents

16 hours ago

Warning: Story contains graphic images A deadly attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine, left shattered buildings and terrified residents who’ve been subjected to relentless shelling throughout the war. Susan Ormiston shows the grief, loss and resilience of those in the aftermath of yet another assault on their lives.

Britain, an ally of Ukraine, said Ukrainian formations in the south had pushed Russian front-line forces back some distance in places, exploiting relatively thin Russian defences.

Ukraine said it had “successes” in three areas of the region but declined to give details.

Russia’s defence ministry has denied reports of Ukrainian progress and said its troops had routed Ukrainian forces.

Away from Ukraine, European Union foreign ministers agreed on Wednesday to fully suspend a visa facilitation agreement with Russia, making it harder and more costly for Russian citizens to enter the EU, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borell said.

Diplomats told the EU that ministers could not agree immediately on a blanket ban of travel visas for Russians as member states were split on the issue.

Ukraine’s allies have accused Russia of using energy as a weapon in retaliation for Western sanctions. Moscow denies doing so and cites technical reasons for supply cuts, but the energy supply reduction is one of the factors that has seen eurozone inflation reach significant levels, including a 9.1 per cent tally for August in a report released Wednesday.

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Heavy Snow Causes Travel Chaos in Japan, South Korea

Yesenia Harris

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Frigid winter weather gripped East Asia for the second straight day on Wednesday, causing several deaths and multiple injuries in Japan and a scramble for flights out of South Korea’s resort island of Jeju following delays by snowstorms.

Heavy snow and record cold temperatures brought widespread disruptions in Japan.

South Korea’s Ministry of the Interior and Safety didn’t immediately report any major damage or injuries from subzero temperatures and icy conditions that have affected most of the country since Tuesday.

But at least eight roads and 10 sea routes remained closed as of Wednesday afternoon. About 140 homes in the capital Seoul and nearby regions reported broken water pressure pumps or pipes as temperatures dipped to around -15 C to –20 C across the mainland.

Trucks are seen stuck due to heavy snow on the Shin-Meishin Expressway in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, Japan on Wednesday. (JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)

A man died in Oita, southern Japan, after being hit by a fallen tree, and two more deaths in the northern prefecture of Niigata were being investigated in connection with the cold weather, officials said.

Two other people were found without vital signs in Okayama, western Japan. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki told reporters that the deaths could be linked to accidents while removing snow and urged residents to refrain from such activities when nobody else is around to help in case of an emergency.

About 400 homes around the country were without electricity due to power line damage caused by fallen trees, the Economy and Industry Ministry said. It said traffic disruptions caused by the snow also caused delivery delays at convenience stores in western Japan.

Thousands of people using train services in Kyoto and Shiga prefectures in western Japan were forced to stay overnight in carriages or stations, and 13 were taken to hospitals, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said. Vehicles on major roads across the country were left stranded and hundreds of flights cancelled. Kyoto prefecture reported more than 30 injuries, mostly by falling.

Air traffic returned to normal after hundreds of flights in and out of Jeju were grounded on Tuesday because of strong winds and snow, stranding an estimated 40,000 travellers who had visited the resort island for Lunar New Year holidays.

Around 540 flights, including nearly 70 that were temporarily added by transportation authorities in an emergency response, were scheduled in and out of Jeju on Wednesday alone, mostly to take passengers back to mainland cities.

The Korea Airports Corporation said the operating hours at Gimpo airport near Seoul were extended until 1 a.m. local time to accommodate the increased flights, which were expected to bring back 70 to 80 per cent of the passengers who were stuck in Jeju.

A train stops due to a power outage at Nishioji Station in Kyoto, western Japan, on Wednesday. Snow and cold weather were affecting much of Japan on Wednesday, disrupting highway, air and train travel, and more snow and cold temperatures were forecast. (Kyodo News/The Associated Press)

The island saw more than 19 centimetres of snow since Tuesday morning, while southern mainland cities and towns such as Gwangju and Gangjin reported around 10 to 12 centimetres of snow. More than 70 centimetres of snow fell on the small eastern island of Ulleung.

The winter storms appeared to be moving toward the greater Seoul area and nearby regions, where heavy snow was expected from late Wednesday to Thursday afternoon, according to the Safety Ministry, which warned about dangerous road conditions.

Officials in Gyeonggi province, which surrounds Seoul, said nearly 7,000 cold-weather shelters will be open across the region and that several thousand tons of snow-clearing chemicals would be used to improve the safety of roads that may turn icy.

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Battle Rages in Ukraine Over Salt Town of Soledar

Yesenia Harris

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The fate of a devastated salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine hung in the balance Wednesday as Ukraine said its forces were holding out against a furious Russian onslaught in what has become one of the fiercest and most costly battles in the almost 11-month war.

Though unlikely to provide a turning point in the war, Soledar’s fall to Russian forces after months of Ukrainian defence would be a prize for the Kremlin, which has been starved of good news from the battlefield amid Ukraine’s counteroffensive in recent months. It would also offer Russian troops a strategic springboard for their efforts to encircle the nearby city of Bakhmut.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday that airborne units had cut off Soledar from the north and south.

But Ukraine denied that the town, with a pre-war population of around 10,000, had fallen.

Incoming artillery relentless: witness

“Heavy fighting continues in Soledar,” Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram. “The enemy has again replaced its units after sustaining losses, has increased the number of Wagner fighters and is trying to burst through our forces’ defence and fully seize the city, but is not having success.”

The Kremlin also stopped short of claiming victory and acknowledged heavy casualties.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation in Soledar. But a Reuters photographer who has reached the outskirts in recent days said many residents had fled along roads out of the town in punishing cold.

Ukrainian servicemen fire a Finnish 120-mm mortar toward Russian positions at the front line near Bakhmut on Wednesday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

She said plumes of smoke could be seen rising over the town and the incoming artillery fire was relentless. Ambulances were waiting to receive the wounded along the road from Soledar to Bakhmut, and there was chaos in field hospitals.

‘Small town with great significance,’ Russian TV says

Denis Pushilin, leader of the Russian-controlled part of Donetsk province, said Soledar’s capture would open a prospect of seizing more significant towns farther west in what Russia has recognized as the Donetsk People’s Republic — centre of Ukrainian heavy industry and one of the four provinces Russia claims to have annexed.

“And this is actually a turning point. Now preparations are underway for the moment we have been waiting for — the liberation of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Pushilin said.

Soledar was the main item on Russian state television news, which rarely mentions Russian reverses. Combative talk-show host Olga Skabeyeva called it a “small town with great significance.”

Ukrainian soldiers watch as smoke billows during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Soledar. (Libkos/The Associated Press)

Analysts were more equivocal.

Soledar’s fall would make “holding Bakhmut much more precarious for Ukraine,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russia Studies at the CAN nonprofit research organization in Arlington, Va., noted Wednesday.

But the costly war of attrition, with expected heavy casualties, may make Russia’s victory as costly as a defeat.

“I don’t think the outcome at Bakhmut is that significant compared to what it costs Russia to achieve it,” Kofman said in a tweet.

The Institute for the Study of War says Russian forces are up against “concerted Ukrainian resistance” around Bakhmut.

“The reality of block-by-block control of terrain in Soledar is obfuscated by the dynamic nature of urban combat … and Russian forces have largely struggled to make significant tactical gains in the Soledar area for months,” the think-tank said.

The collapse of Soledar “would not mean the Ukrainian defensive line or front have collapsed and that it would be necessary to fall back to new defensive lines,” said Oleksandr Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based analyst.

Ukrainian servicemen administer first aid to a wounded soldier in a shelter in Soledar. (Roman Chop/The Associated Press)

The Wagner Group, which now reportedly includes a large contingent of convicts recruited in Russian prisons, has spearheaded the attack on Soledar and Bakhmut. Western intelligence has estimated that the Wagner Group constitutes up to a quarter of all Russian combatants in Ukraine.

Late Tuesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, claimed in audio reports posted on his Russian social media platform that his forces had seized control of Soledar, though he also said that battles were continuing in a “cauldron” in the city’s centre.

Cavernous mines could hide troops, weapons

The Russian state news agency RIA said Wagner had taken over Soledar’s salt mines, and a photograph posted on Wagner’s Telegram channel appeared to show Prigozhin and his fighters inside a mine.

Soledar’s cavernous mines are owned by state-owned enterprise Artemsil, which dominated the Ukrainian salt market until it halted production a few months after Russia invaded. The mines reach a depth of 200-300 metres and have tunnels with a combined length of 300 kilometres, according a local tourist website.

Ukrainian serviceman Hryhorii, 42, of the 43rd Heavy Artillery Brigade emerges from a German howitzer near Soledar on Wednesday. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

The enterprise was once considered one of the largest in eastern Europe and exported salt to 20 countries. A hot air balloon was once flown inside one of the mines to demonstrate their depth.

The salt mines could serve as a commercially lucrative asset and also be used to store ammunition and weapons out of range of Ukrainian missiles.

A U.S. official said last week that Prigozhin was interested in taking control of salt and gypsum from mines near Bakhmut. Prigozhin has himself spoken of Bakhmut’s “underground cities,” saying they can hold troops and tanks.

A success in Soledar and Bakhmut would help Prigozhin, who has openly criticized Russia’s military leadership, to increase his clout at the Kremlin.

Russia illegally annexed Donetsk and three other Ukrainian provinces in September, but its troops have struggled to advance. After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.

WATCH | CBC’s Chris Brown in Kyiv on the battle for Soledar:

Intense battle for Ukrainian salt-mining town

5 hours ago

The CBC’s Chris Brown is in Ukraine and reports on the intense fight for the eastern salt-mining town of Soledar, which is now under furious assault from Russia.

Other news from the war

Russian forces continued their shelling elsewhere, including 13 settlements in and around Kharkiv region that were largely returned to Ukrainian hands in September and October, the Ukrainian military said.Ukraine introduced emergency power cuts in eastern and southeastern regions on Wednesday as low temperatures and difficult weather conditions stretched the country’s crippled energy system, officials said.Russia’s still making plenty of money from oil sales despite a price cap imposed by the Group of Seven major democracies. Researchers at Helsinki’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said the price cap and a ban on most oil shipments to Europe are costing Russia an estimated $172 million US a day. But Russia is still taking in around $688 million a day.Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke in a recorded message at Tuesday night’s Golden Globes ceremony. “There will be no third World War,” Zelenskyy said, predicting Russia’s defeat. “It is not a trilogy.”

A woman walks past anti-tank construction in the centre of Kyiv on Wednesday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

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Russia Intensifies Attacks on Strategic City of Kherson and Eastern Ukraine

Yesenia Harris

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Russian forces stepped up mortar and artillery attacks on the recently liberated city of Kherson in southern Ukraine on Wednesday, Ukraine’s military said, while also exerting constant pressure along front lines in eastern regions of the country.

Russia fired 33 missiles from multiple rocket launchers at civilian targets in Kherson in the 24 hours to early Wednesday, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in its morning report. Russia denies targeting civilians.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Tuesday released a count of civilian casualties related to the war in Ukraine. It said 6,884 people are known to have died, including 429 children, between Feb. 24, when the invasion began, to Dec. 26. The OHCR put the number of injured at 10,947.

Most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons, it said in a statement.

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“OHCHR believes that the actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration,” the statement said.

Heavy fighting also persisted on Wednesday around the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, now largely in ruins, in the eastern province of Donetsk, and to its north, around the cities of Svatove and Kreminna in Luhansk province, where Ukrainian forces are trying to break Russian defensive lines.

Nationwide air raid sirens

Air raid sirens also sounded across Ukraine on Wednesday morning, officials said. Ukrainian social media reports said the nationwide alert may have been declared after Russian jets stationed in Belarus took off. Reuters was unable to immediately verify that information.

Britain’s defence ministry said in its latest update on the military situation in Ukraine that Russia had likely reinforced the Kreminna section of the front line as it is logistically important to Moscow and has become relatively vulnerable following recent Ukrainian advances farther west.

There is still no prospect of talks to end the war, now in its 11th month.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is vigorously pushing a 10-point peace plan that envisages Russia fully respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and pulling out all its troops, something Moscow refuses to contemplate.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said on Sunday he was open to negotiations but only on his terms, which include Ukraine accepting the loss of four regions — Luhansk and Donetsk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south. Together, they comprise about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory.

The Kremlin on Wednesday dismissed Zelenskyy’s plan. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “There can be no peace plan for Ukraine that does not take into account today’s realities regarding Russian territory, with the entry of four regions into Russia. Plans that do not take these realities into account cannot be peaceful.”

Russia declared Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions as part of its territory in September after referendums condemned by Ukraine and Western countries. Russia does not fully control any of the four regions.

‘Pressure from the enemy has intensified’

“There has been very little change in terms of the front line but pressure from the enemy has intensified, both in terms of the numbers of men and the type and quantity of equipment,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.

Zhdanov said that fighting had intensified with Russia deploying armoured vehicles and tanks.

Russian forces abandoned Kherson city last month in one of Ukraine’s most significant gains of the war. Kherson region, located at the mouth of the mighty Dnipro River and serving as gateway to Russian-annexed Crimea, is strategically important.

The joy of Kherson residents over the city’s liberation has quickly given way to fear amid relentless Russian shelling from the east bank of the Dnipro, and many have since fled.

Russian forces shelled the maternity wing of a hospital in Kherson, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Zelenskyy’s deputy chief of staff, said on Telegram. No one was hurt and the staff and patients had been moved to a shelter, he added.

Workers are seen on Wednesday carrying furniture from a hospital maternity unit damaged by Russian shelling in Kherson, in southern Ukraine. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Reuters was unable to immediately verify the report.

A Russian strike killed at least 10 people and wounded 58 in Kherson last Saturday, Ukraine said.

More shelling reported in Zaporizhzhia

In Wednesday’s report, Ukraine’s General Staff also reported further Russian shelling in Zaporizhzhia region and in the Sumy and Kharkiv regions of northeast Ukraine, near to the Russian border.

Reuters was unable to verify the battlefield reports.

In Bakhmut, home to 70,000 people before the war and now a bombed-out ghost town, which Russia has been trying for months to storm at huge cost in lives, Reuters reporters this week saw fires burning in a large residential building. Debris littered the streets and the windows of most buildings were blown out.

“Our building is destroyed. There was a shop in our building, now it’s not there anymore,” said Oleksandr, 85, adding he was the only remaining resident there.

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