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Ukraine’s Zelenskiy visits flood-stricken areas

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KHERSON, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the flood-stricken southern region of Kherson on Thursday to assess the scale of devastation after the destruction of a huge dam whose waters submerged homes, fields and roads.

Drone video showed areas where often only the roofs of houses were visible above the flooding. The region’s governor said some 600 square kilometres, or 230 square miles, were under water.

Russia and Ukraine have traded blame for the bursting of the Soviet-era Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, which sent waters cascading across the war zone of southern Ukraine in the early hours of Tuesday, forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Moscow and Kyiv also accused each other on Thursday of shelling the area as rescue workers in rubber dinghies tried to save people and animals from the still rising flood waters.

At least three people were wounded in Russian shelling of Kherson city – about 60 km (37 miles) downstream from the dam – during evacuations, Ukrainian police said. A Reuters reporter in Kherson said he could hear what appeared to be artillery fire but could not immediately provide any details.

The Kremlin similarly accused Ukraine of shelling Russian rescue workers in the area, without providing evidence.

The dam collapse happened as Ukraine prepares a major counteroffensive against Russia’s invasion, likely the next major phase in the 15-month-old war.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces had repelled overnight attempts by Ukrainian forces to break through the frontline in the Zaporizhzhia region adjacent to Kherson, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.

Reuters could not independently verify his assertion.

Ukraine said the floods would leave hundreds of thousands of people without access to drinking water, swamp tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land and turn at least 500,000 hectares deprived of irrigation into “deserts”.

EMERGENCY TALKS

Zelenskiy, who has appealed for a “clear and rapid” international effort to help flood victims, held emergency talks with officials in Kherson, one of five Ukrainian regions which Moscow claims to have annexed but only partially controls.

“It is important to calculate the damage and allocate funds to compensate residents affected by the disaster and develop a programme to compensate for losses or relocate businesses within the Kherson region,” Zelenskiy said.

The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had no plans to visit the region but was monitoring the situation.

Putin, without providing evidence, has accused Ukraine of destroying the Russian-controlled dam at the suggestion of its Western allies.

Kyiv said several months ago the dam had been mined by Russian forces who captured it early in their invasion, and has suggested Moscow blew it up to try to prevent Ukrainian forces crossing the Dnipro river in their counteroffensive.

It is not known how many people may have died as a result of the flooding. The Russian-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, near the dam site, said on Thursday at least five people had died but the total death toll is sure to be much higher.

“The water was coming in about 100 metres per hour, at least,” said 26-year-old Vitaly, who rowed his boat through the flooded streets of Korsunka, a village in a Russian-controlled part of Kherson region, trying to help neighbours.

“In 15 minutes, it flooded all the basements and wells. Everything was underwater,” said Vitaly, whose own house and plot of land were swallowed up by the deluge.

Kherson’s Ukrainian governor, Oleksandr Prokudin, said 68% of the flooded territory was on the Russian-occupied left bank of the Dnipro River.

The “average level of flooding” in the Kherson region on Thursday morning was 5.61 meters (18.41 ft), he said.

The water level at the Kakhovka reservoir is now approaching a dangerous low, the state company overseeing the facility said on Thursday, saying this could affect the nearby Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station and water supply to other regions.

The U.N. atomic watchdog said on Tuesday the plant, Europe’s largest, has enough water to cool its reactors for “several months” from a pond located above the reservoir.

FLOATING MINES

Ukrainian and Russian officials have also warned of the danger posed by mines planted during the 15-month-old war and now unearthed and scattered by the flood waters.

“In the past we knew where the hazards were. Now we don’t know. All we know is that (the mines) are somewhere downstream,” said Erik Tollefsen, head of the Weapon Contamination Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

He said the mines could pose a danger for decades to come.

In its daily Ukraine briefing, Britain’s defence ministry on Thursday reported heavy fighting along “multiple sectors of the front”, adding that Kyiv held the initiative in most areas.

Ukraine’s military said the flooding in Kherson had forced Russian troops to retreat by five to 15 km in the region and had “practically halved” Russian shelling.

Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield situation. Russia did not immediately comment.

The Russian-installed governor overseeing the part of Kherson region now controlled by Moscow said the collapse of the dam worked in Russia’s favour by making it easier for its forces to defend against any Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Meanwhile, rescuers in Kherson were scrambling to save thousands of pets trapped by the floodwaters.

“People evacuate, then call us crying and say ‘please save my animal, it is sat on the roof of my home, I cannot go anywhere’. A lot of people ask for help,” said Iryna, 45, one of the volunteer rescuers.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Gareth Jones; editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)

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