KYIV, June 6 (Reuters) – A torrent of water burst through a gaping hole in a dam on the Dnipro River that separates Russian and Ukrainian forces in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, flooding a swathe of the war zone and forcing villagers to flee.
Ukraine accused Russia of blowing up the dam from the inside in a deliberate war crime. Russian-installed officials gave conflicting accounts, some blaming Ukrainian shelling, others saying the dam had burst on its own.
The Nova Kakhovka dam supplies water to Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, both under Russian control. The vast reservoir behind it is one of the main geographic features of southern Ukraine, 240 km (150 miles) long and up to 23 km (14 miles) wide. A swathe of countryside lies in the flood plain below.
The destruction of the dam creates a new humanitarian disaster in the centre of the war zone and transforms the front lines just as Ukraine is unleashing a long-awaited counteroffensive to drive Russian troops from its territory.
Russia has controlled the dam since early in the war, although Ukrainian forces recaptured the northern side of the river last year. Both sides had long accused the other of planning to destroy it.
“Russian terrorists. The destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam only confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Russians had “carried out an internal detonation of the structures” of the dam. “About 80 settlements are in the zone of flooding,” he said on Telegram.
The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s Kherson region accused Kyiv of striking the dam with missiles to distract attention from what he said were the failures of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the east. However, other Russian-installed officials said the dam had burst on its own due to earlier damage.
Neither side offered immediate evidence proving who was to blame.
The vast reservoir above the dam supplies fresh water to huge swathes of agricultural land, including the Crimea peninsula, which Russia claims to have annexed in 2014. It also provides cooling water for Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, located in Russian-held territory on the southern bank.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Twitter it was closely monitoring the situation, but that there was “no immediate nuclear safety risk at the plant”.
Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom also said the dam breach did not pose a threat for now to the plant and said the situation was being monitored.
The water level at the town immediately adjacent to the breached dam could rise by up to 12 metres, its Russia-installed mayor, Vladimir Leontyev, said on the Telegram messaging app.
Video showed water surging through the remains of the dam – which is 30 metres (yards) tall and 3.2 km (2 miles) long.
Some 22,000 people living across 14 settlements in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region are at risk of flooding, Russia’s RIA news agency quoted the Moscow-installed head of the region as saying. Kherson is one of five regions, including Crimea, that Moscow claims to have annexed.
The Russian-backed governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said there was a risk that water levels in the North Crimea Canal, which carries fresh water to the peninsula from the Dnipro river, could fall. Crimea had sufficient water reserves for the moment, and the level of risk would become clear in coming days.
A Russian-installed official in the town of Nova Kakhovka said residents of around 300 houses had been evacuated, state-owned news agency TASS reported. He said it would likely be impossible to repair the dam.
The dam breach came as Ukraine prepares its long-awaited counteroffensive to drive Russian forces from territory they have seized during more than 15 months of fighting.
Russia said it had thwarted another Ukrainian offensive in eastern Donetsk and inflicted heavy losses. Kyiv has maintained strict silence on the counteroffensive but has dismissed Russia’s claims to have thwarted Ukrainian assaults.
Russia also launched a fresh wave of overnight air strikes on Kyiv. Ukraine said its air defence systems had downed more than 20 cruise missiles on their approach to the capital.
The Shebekino district of Russia’s Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border came under renewed shelling on Tuesday, local authorities said, urging residents to take cover. Anti-government Russian fighters based in Ukraine claim to have infiltrated the area, seizing villages near the border.
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said on Telegram that Russian forces had blown up the dam “in a panic”, in what it said was “an obvious act of terrorism and a war crime, which will be evidence in an international tribunal”.
Zelenskiy will hold an emergency meeting about the dam’s collapse, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, said on Twitter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year in what the Kremlin expected to be a swift operation, but its forces suffered a series of defeats and regrouped in the country’s east.
Tens of thousands of Russian troops dug in over the winter, besieging the eastern city of Bakhmut for months and bracing for an expected Ukrainian counterattack.
Ukrainian officials have made clear they will not comment on the start of their campaign, although in his nightly address on Monday Zelenskiy was enigmatic, hailing “the news we have been waiting for” and forward moves in Bakhmut in Donetsk.
Russia says it thwarted a major Ukrainian attack in the Donetsk region over the weekend and on Tuesday the defence ministry said a fresh Ukrainian assault had also been repelled.
Writing on Telegram, Russia’s Wagner militia leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said Moscow’s claims of huge Ukrainian losses were “simply wild and absurd science fiction.”