Russia struck Zaporizhzhia after Putin moved to take control of the nuclear power plant

Kiev, Ukraine

Russia launched a deadly missile attack on the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia early Thursday, hours after the Kremlin said it had seized a massive nuclear power plant nearby.

The barrage began with pre-dawn strikes, the first of which hit high-rise residential buildings while people slept, Ukrainian officials said. A woman died and seven people, including a 3-year-old girl, were hospitalized. Authorities are still working to pull people out of the rubble.

More missile attacks were reported after sunrise, and local officials urged residents of the city along the Dnipro River to take shelter.

The city of Zaporizhzhia is not far from the front line of the conflict. Although the city is under Ukrainian control, about 75% of the greater Zaporizhzhia region is occupied by Russian forces. This region is one of the four territories of Ukraine in violation of international law by Russia. The other three are Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Kherson in the south.

The Russian strikes in Zaporizhzhia come a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree federalizing the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, located 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the city. and it is in the occupied territory of Russia, next to the Dnipro river.

The plant is Europe’s largest nuclear facility and has been under Russian control since the start of the war, although it is still operated mostly by Ukrainian technicians.

Ukraine’s military alleged on Tuesday that workers at the plant were subjected to “moral and psychological pressure” and were forced to obtain Russian passports and sign employment contracts with Russia’s state nuclear energy agency. CNN could not verify those allegations, but when Putin announced the planned annexation of four Ukrainian territories on Friday, he said the millions of people living there would become Russian citizens “forever.”

The Zaporizhzhia plant has come under intense scrutiny since it was occupied shortly after Russia invaded in late February. Intense shelling near the facility raised fears of a nuclear accident this summer, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency to send a team there.

UN nuclear watchdog Rafael Grossi was in Kiev on Thursday to discuss calls to establish a nuclear safety zone around the plant “as soon as possible”, the IAEA said in a statement. Grossi will also visit Russia in the coming days.

Grossi said at the press conference that it was not yet clear what the “practical consequences” of Russia’s decision to seize the plant were, but he would discuss these issues in high-level meetings in Moscow. He also said that the IAEA considers the facility to be Ukrainian.

“We want this war to stop. The war should stop immediately. The position of the IAEA is that this facility is a Ukrainian facility, but I do not go into the comments about the military evolution”, said Grossi.

“For us, it is obvious that since this is a Ukrainian facility, the ownership (sic) belongs to Energatom,” Grossi said, referring to Ukraine’s state nuclear agency. “We are an international agency, and we are guided by international law. And as you all know very well, according to international law, annexations are not allowed.”

Grossi said it is beyond the scope of his team to investigate allegations of wrongdoing against Ukrainian workers working at the plant. Currently, the IAEA has two employees at the plant, who are working in “almost unbearable conditions”, but they will be replaced soon, Grossi said.

The Ukrainian military continues its successful counteroffensive, retaking territory in the south and forcing Russian troops to withdraw from territory the Kremlin is trying to claim as its own.

Ukraine’s military said Russian units were suffering heavy losses in Kherson and were trying to evacuate wounded soldiers to safety across the Dnipro River on Wednesday as Kiev advances on its western bank. Ukraine has also said it is making progress in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where the Moscow-backed republic has been fighting since 2014.

Russia has promised to take control of all of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but its goals in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are less clear, leading to confusion over Russia’s claimed borders. Putin said on Wednesday that he hopes the situation will stabilize, even though the Russian army does not fully control those areas.

The pro-Russian media has been surprisingly critical of the war effort in recent days, with some saying the Kremlin does not have enough troops to repel attacks in Ukraine.

“We are waiting for our reserves to fight and join the fight,” said Yuriy Podolyak, a pro-Russian military blogger.

Podolyak was probably referring to the 300,000 reservists to be called up as part of a “partial mobilization” ordered by Putin last month. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that more than 200,000 people had joined the country’s army after the announcement, sparking protests and hundreds of thousands of people – mostly men of fighting age – fleeing to neighboring countries.

Ukraine’s military accused Russia of recruiting new soldiers from penal colonies, including more than 650 prisoners from the high-security prison in Stavropol Krai.