Thousands fled their homes Wednesday after the destruction of a Russian-held dam in Ukraine flooded dozens of villages and parts of a nearby city, sparking fears of a humanitarian disaster.
Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the Kakhovka dam being ripped open on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin calling the destruction a “barbaric act”, in his first public reaction.
The breach of the dam in southern Ukraine, which provides cooling water for Europe’s largest nuclear plant, took place as Ukrainian troops prepared to launch the offensive to recover lost territory.
Downstream from the breached Kakhovka dam, police and troops in Kherson were bringing people out from inundated areas in inflatable boats, most clutching only a few documents or pets.
Despite the evacuations, officials said Russian forces had kept shelling the residential neighbourhoods.
“We’re used to shooting, but a natural disaster is a real nightmare,” said Nataliya Korzh, 68, who had to swim part of the way to escape from her house.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she told AFP.
She emerged from a rescue boat barefoot, her legs covered with scratches, her hands trembling from cold.
“We no longer have a home,” said Dmitry Melnikov, 46, who was evacuated with his five children.
“We have been here since the beginning of the war, we survived the occupation,” said Melnikov, whose family was being evacuated to the southern city of Mykolaiv.
“But now we have no home, no nothing, no work. We don’t want to leave, but what can we do?”
– Erdogan proposes probe –
The water was waist-deep in central streets of Kherson and ground floors of buildings were submerged.
As the mutual recriminations continued, Moscow accused Kyiv of blowing up a section of the Togliatti-Odesa pipeline. Russia used it before the war to export ammonia, and its re-activation had been requested as part of talks for a deal on Ukraine grain exports.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of firing at the pipeline.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed an international commission to investigate the damage after speaking with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky said on Twitter that he had sent Erdogan “a list of Ukraine’s urgent needs to eliminate the disaster”.
Putin denounced the breach as “a barbaric act which has led to a large-scale environmental and humanitarian catastrophe”, according to the Kremlin.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told AFP Wednesday that London was unwilling to apportion blame yet and was waiting for “all available facts”.
He added, however, that Russia bore ultimate responsibility as “this event is a direct repercussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”.
Almost 6,000 people have been evacuated from the flooded regions, according to statements from Russian and Ukrainian officials: some 4,000 on the Russian side and nearly 2,000 on the Ukraine side.
The governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, said that ongoing shelling was endangering rescuers and locals.
– ‘Environmental bomb’ –
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the dam’s destruction would hamper efforts to locate landmines in the affected region.
“We knew where the hazards were,” said Erik Tollefsen, head of the ICRC’s Weapon Contamination Unit. “Now we don’t know. All we know is that they are somewhere downstream.”
The United Nations warned that hundreds of thousands could be affected on both sides of the frontline.
Zelensky expressed dismay at a lack of help from the UN and Red Cross.
“They are not there,” he told Germany’s Bild daily, adding that he was “in shock because I think they are the forces who have to be there to save people’s lives”.
Earlier Wednesday he accused Russia of having detonated an “environmental bomb of mass destruction”, saying authorities expected up to 80 settlements with tens of thousands of residents to be flooded.
“This crime carries enormous threats and will have dire consequences for people’s lives and the environment,” Zelensky said.
But the explosion would “not affect Ukraine’s ability to de-occupy its own territories”, he added.
Last October, Zelensky accused Russia of planting mines at the dam, warning that its destruction would spur a new wave of refugees into Europe.
– ‘Atrocious act’ –
Kyiv said 150 tonnes of engine oil had spilled into the river, and the agricultural ministry said about 10 thousand hectares of farmland on the right bank of the river would be flooded and “several times more” on the left bank.
China expressed “serious concern” over the dam destruction, EU chief Charles Michel called it a “war crime” and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg condemned it as “outrageous”.
French President Emmanuel Macron said late Wednesday he would send aid to Ukraine “within the next few hours” in response to the crisis. He condemned the “atrocious act” of the dam’s destruction.
Russia has said the dam was partially destroyed by “multiple strikes” from Ukrainian forces and urged the world to condemn Kyiv’s “criminal acts”.
The reservoir formed by the Soviet-era dam on the Dnipro River, built in the 1950s, provides cooling water for the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant some 150 kilometres (90 miles) away.
Ukraine has warned that the breach endangers the safety of the nuclear plant, though the UN nuclear watchdog agency said there was “no short-term risk”.