The IAEA team arrives near the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, after months of negotiations to gain access to the plant during fighting.
United Nations inspectors have arrived in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya — the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant — as they try to protect the site and prevent radiation leaks amid fighting raging around it.
The mission arrived Wednesday after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi spent months seeking access to the plant for an unprecedented wartime mission.
World leaders have also demanded that the UN watchdog be allowed to inspect it. Occupied by Russian troops, the complex has been run by Ukrainian engineers since the early days of the six-month-old war.
With the convoy of UN-marked vans and SUVs finally arriving in the afternoon in the city of Zaporizhzhya, some 75 miles (120 km) by road from the factory, Grossi said the “real work” will begin on Thursday. He underlined the challenges ahead.
“It is a mission that aims to prevent a nuclear accident and to preserve this important – the largest, the largest – nuclear power plant in Europe,” he said.
He said an initial tour will take a few days, after which “we’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s going on”. Grossi said he had received “explicit assurances” from Russia that the 14 experts would be able to do their job.
Grossi also said he hopes the IAEA will be able to establish an “ongoing presence” at the plant to protect it from an accident.
The team’s work at the site, he added, includes a physical inspection of the site, operation of the safety system and interviews with nuclear plant personnel.
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s representative to the international organization in Vienna, welcomed the idea that the UN agency’s experts could stay on site permanently.
The world watched with concern at the progress of the mission. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, reiterated a call on Russia to completely demilitarize the area around the factory.
“They are playing games. They’re gambling with nuclear security,” Borrell said. “We can’t play war games near a site like this.”
While the inspectors were en route, Russian-backed local authorities repeatedly accused Ukrainian troops of shelling the factory site and the city where it is located, Enerhodar. They said drone strikes hit the factory’s administrative building and training center.
Yevhen Yevtushenko, chief of administration in the Ukrainian city of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the factory, accused the attacks were carried out by the Russians in an attempt to make Ukraine appear as the culprit.
Fighting for Kherson
Meanwhile, fighting on the ground continues, with Ukrainian officials saying they have had “success” in three areas of the Russian-occupied Kherson region, two days after Kiev announced the start of a southern counter-offensive to retake territory.
Yuriy Sobolevskyi, the deputy head of Kherson’s regional council, told Ukraine’s national news channel that Ukrainian troops had had success in Kherson, Berislav and Kakhovka districts, but declined to give details.
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo said it is worth noting that the front line has been very stable in recent weeks.
“None of these [Russian and Ukrainian] armed forces have been able to deliver great feats, so we will have to see if Ukraine has enough weapons and manpower to liberate many of those cities occupied by Russia,” she said.
The Russian Defense Ministry disputed Ukraine’s claim to successes in the south, stressing that Ukrainian forces have suffered rather heavy losses in equipment and men.
In its daily briefing, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had shot down three Ukrainian helicopters and that Ukraine had lost four fighter jets during two days of fighting around the Mykolaiv-Kryvyi Rih frontline and in other areas of southern Ukraine.
Reuters and Al Jazeera news agency were unable to verify the battlefield reports.