Thousands of people are being evacuated in Ukraine as water floods out from a major dam that has been blown up in a Russian-held region of the war-torn country. President Zelensky said 80 towns and villages were at risk of flooding after the destruction of the dam at Nova Kakhovka, which he has pinned on Russia.
The water is said to pose a catastrophic risk to the city of Kherson as it surges down the Dnipro river.
Around 40,000 people need to be evacuated, Deputy Prosecutor-General Viktoriya Lytvynova said on Ukrainian television.
This includes 17,000 people in the Ukraine-controlled territory west of the Dnipro River, and 25,000 on the Russian-controlled east.
Russia has denied destroying the dam and instead blames Ukrainian shelling – something Ukraine had been predicting they would do for months.
As far back as October last year, analysts suggested Moscow would blow the dam and send 18 million cubic metres of water hurtling for 80 nearby Ukrainian settlements, including Kherson.
Mr Zelensky added at the time that the Kremlin will attempt to place the blame on Ukraine as the flood devastates the lives of thousands of Ukrainians, a belief shared by US-based think-tank the Institute for the Study of War.
The Khakova dam is crucial to the local region, holding back a reservoir which provides water to farmers and residents.
It also, crucially, provides water to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant for cooling, and is a vital channel carrying water south to Russian-occupied Crimea.
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Several towns are already flooded, while people in areas further downstream were forced to flee by bus and train.
Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said about 1,000 people had been evacuated so far and “24 settlements” had been flooded.
While it is not clear exactly what caused the dam breach, Ukraine’s military intelligence has accused Russia of deliberately blowing it up early this morning.
However, a Russian official claims Ukraine carried out the attack on the dam to detract from what they said were the failures of its counter-offensive and to deprive Crimea of fresh water.
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While there has been no official declaration from Kyiv, increased recent military activity suggests the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive may have recently begun.
Senior Ukrainian military commander Serhiy Naev said the dam blast would not stop the counter attack.
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly branded the partial destruction of the dam as an “abhorrent act”, adding: “Intentionally attacking exclusively civilian infrastructure is a war crime. The UK stands ready to support Ukraine and those affected by this catastrophe.”
The head of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg, said it demonstrated once again the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine, while Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said he was “shocked by the unprecedented attack”.
Due to the danger it poses to civilians, the Geneva Conventions explicitly ban targeting dams in war.
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