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Ukraine mounts attacks in Kherson; U.N. inspectors head to nuclear plant

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Mariano Grossi, center, tweeted a picture on Aug. 29 saying a team will soon visit Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. (@rafaelmgrossi/AFP)
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Ukrainian officials said Monday that new attacks on Russian forces in the Kherson region were underway, potentially signaling the start of an offensive to recapture occupied territory.

Ukrainian officials have signaled for weeks that their forces would mount a counterattack in the south, including near the regional capital of Kherson, which was the first strategic city seized by the invading Russians.

But the scale of the Ukrainian operation was unclear. Ukrainian officials declined to provide details and U.S. military officials in Washington said they did not yet have a clear picture of what was happening.

Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said in an interview with TV Rain, a Russian-language channel, that Ukrainian forces had breached the Russian front lines. Humeniuk, however, would not comment on the size of the operation and confirmed only that “offensive actions” had begun.

And a Ukrainian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive, said that “counterattack” was too strong a phrase to describe what he said was “a normal operation.”

A senior U.S. military official said, “Are they on the offensive? I think they are. Is this a counteroffensive? I don’t know.” The senior U.S. military official added, “In the next 24 to 36 hours we’ll all have a much better sense of the level of this offensive.”

The flare up in fighting Kherson occurred as the head of the International Atomic Agency said inspectors forming a “support and assistance mission” were on the way to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine.

Strikes near the nuclear plant continued on Monday, according to Ukrainian officials. Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for the attacks, which have sparked fears in recent weeks of a possible catastrophe at Europe’s biggest nuclear power station.

A senior U.S. defense official said Russian and Ukrainian forces had each fired in the vicinity of the nuclear but that, in some cases, the Ukrainians were returning fire from the Russians who occupy the territory surrounding the plant.

“In a number of cases its returning fire of the Russians who have fired from those locations,” the defense official said, adding: “The Ukrainians are very aware of the potential impact of striking the nuclear plant.”

Ukraine, Russia exchange blame for more shelling at nuclear plant

The IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhia, known as ISAMZ, will be at the plant “later this week,” IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi tweeted Monday.

The experts will aim to assess any physical damage to the plant, evaluate working conditions, perform “urgent safeguards activities” and make sure the facility’s safety and security systems are in good order, the IAEA said.

Russia said Monday that it would ensure the safety of the IAEA inspectors and accused Ukraine of fueling insecurity there.

“We hope that the visit of the IAEA mission dispels numerous speculations about the allegedly unfavorable state of affairs at the nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia,” Russia’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, told state-run news agency RIA Novosti. Ulyanov added that Russia “has made a significant contribution” to the planning of the mission.

Shelling has occurred repeatedly near the Zaporizhzhia plant, sparking fears of a radioactive disaster. Grossi previously said that “any military action jeopardizing nuclear safety and security must stop.”

What to know about Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

The Kremlin reiterated Monday, however, that it was not willing to create a demilitarized zone around the plant. Towns near the plant were shelled late Sunday and into Monday, Ukrainian officials said.

Ten people were injured Sunday, including four plant workers, in shelling that hit the city of Enerhodar, where the plant is located, according to Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear power company.

Shelling on Sunday in Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the plant, left at least one dead, five injured and more than 2,600 families without electricity, according to the Dnipropetrovsk region’s governor, Valentyn Reznichenko.

Russia also hit two districts northeast of Zaporizhzhia early Monday, causing a fire and damaging at least one residential building, Reznichenko said.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Monday that Ukraine expects the IAEA mission to find that Russia is endangering safety.

“We expect from the mission a clear statement of facts of violation of all nuclear safety protocols,” Kuleba said at a news conference in Stockholm.

Karoun Demirjian in Washington and David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.