Russian forces on Thursday shelled a southern Ukrainian city that was inundated in a catastrophic dam collapse, Ukrainian officials said, forcing a suspension of some rescue work hours after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to the area to assess the damage.
At least five people have died, many are homeless, and tens of thousands are without drinking water after the Kakhovka dam's destruction. Ukraine accused Russia of blowing of the facility, which Moscow's forces controlled, while Russia said Ukraine bombarded it.
The ensuing flooding has ruined crops, displaced land mines, wrought widespread environmental damage, and set the stage for long-term electricity shortages. Exclusive drone footage captured by The Associated Press showed the ruined dam falling into the flooded river and hundreds of submerged homes, greenhouses and even a church.
In Kherson city, the largest municipality affected, repeated Russian shelling echoed overhead in the early afternoon not far from a square where emergency crews and volunteers were dispensing aid. Some evacuation points in the city were hit, wounding eight people, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.
As shells landed in floodwaters, rescue workers temporarily suspended efforts to retrieve stranded residents and pets in an area that Zelenskyy had visited only hours earlier.
“The strikes began during evacuation of the residents, whose houses were flooded,” the ministry said. “Russia has abandoned people in calamity in the occupied part of the Kherson region. It continues to prevent Ukraine from saving the most valuable — human lives.”
The dam lay along Dnieper River, a pivotal waterway that forms part of the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces.
In recent weeks, Ukraine intensified shelling of Russian positions, signaling a long-expected counteroffensive could finally be getting underway. Kyiv has been silent about the start of any such campaign.
Amid the fighting, both sides were coping with the fallout from the burst dam. On Thursday, Ukrainian rescue workers stepped up efforts to get drinking water, medical care and other support to beleaguered residents.
Zelenskyy traveled to Kherson to see the efforts firsthand. He visited an aid distribution point and a medical facility and ordered Ukrainian officials to provide a “fair valuation” of the devastation to help compensate residents, his office said in an online update.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “has no plans at the current moment” to visit the affected Moscow-occupied areas, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Five residents of the Russian-occupied city of Nova Kakhovka have died, its Kremlin-appointed mayor said Thursday. Vladimir Leontyev said on Russian state TV that in addition two other people who had gone missing had been found.
The collapse of the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam and emptying of its reservoir on the river have added to the misery that the region has suffered for more than a year from artillery and missile attacks. The United Nations and local authorities say access to fresh water and avoidance of contact with water contaminated by explosives, chemicals from industrial sites were among the most immediate concerns.
Officials say more than 6,000 people have been evacuated from dozens of inundated cities, towns and villages on both sides of the river. The true scale of the disaster is yet to emerge in an affected area that was home to more than 60,000 people.
In areas that they administer, Russian-appointed authorities said nearly two dozen people have been hospitalized, 4,280 people have been evacuated and some 14,000 buildings have been flooded.
Russian officials say the destruction of the dam, which created a giant reservoir of water used for irrigation and drinking water, will eventually halt fresh water supplies to Russian-controlled Crimea, even though the peninsula has enough fresh water for now — with its reservoirs 80% full.
Ukrainian authorities cut off fresh water supplies to Crimea after Moscow's illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need to restore them among the main reasons for his decision to invade Ukraine.
Regional Governor Oleksandr Prokudin said the average level of flooding Thursday morning in the region was more than 5.6 meters (18 feet) and roughly 600 square kilometers (231 square miles) of the region were submerged — more than two-thirds of that on the Russian-controlled eastern bank.
“People are tired ... (they) have no desire to flee to other regions of Ukraine,” Prokudin said.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that the destruction of the dam was an “attack” and an “atrocious act,” without saying who is to blame. Paris said it was rushing aid including water purifiers, 500,000 water purification tablets and hygiene kits to help people displaced by the disaster.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of purposely destroying the dam. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, a key ally of Putin, backed the Russian claim that Ukraine blew up the dam to distract attention from what it described as a botched Ukrainian attempt to launch a counteroffensive.
Ukrainian authorities have largely kept quiet about recent development on the battlefield amid growing reports of intensified fighting that could add up to the long-awaited counteroffensive.
In the eastern region of Donbas, the battle for Bakhmut was continuing with Ukrainian troops advancing on the flanks of the city, which was devastated in months of fighting — one of the epicenters of the war. Ukraine's' 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, in a Telegram post on Thursday, said Ukrainian forces advanced 1.2 kilometers.