Kyiv, Ukraine — A fire at an ammunition depot near the Russian village of Timonovo has led to the evacuation of two villages in Russia’s Belgorod region on Ukraine’s northeastern border, an official said Friday. The fire was the latest in a series of devastating incidents in Russian-occupied Ukraine or in Russia itself.
About 1,100 people live in the villages of Timonovo and Soloti, about 25 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. There were no casualties in Thursday night’s fire, said Vyacheslav Gladkov, the regional governor of Belgorod.
The fire came days after another ammunition depot exploded in the Crimean Peninsula, a Russian-occupied Black Sea region annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Last week, nine Russian warplanes were destroyed at an airbase in Crimea, demonstrating both the Russians’ vulnerability and the Ukrainians’ ability to attack deep behind enemy lines. Ukrainian authorities have stopped publicly claiming responsibility.
But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to Ukrainian attacks behind enemy lines after the explosion in Crimea, blaming Russia for “sabotage.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in televised comments on Friday that statements by Ukrainian officials about strike facilities in Crimea “mark an escalation in the conflict that is openly encouraged by the United States and its NATO allies.”
Ryabkov said Russian officials had warned the US of such actions in telephone conversations with senior members of the Biden administration, adding that “deep and overt involvement of the US” in the war in Ukraine is “effectively putting the US on the brink of a become a party to the conflict.”
“We don’t want an escalation,” Ryabkov said. “We want to avoid a situation where the US becomes a party to the conflict, but so far we have not seen them willing to take those warnings into serious consideration.”
Despite the latest incidents, a Western official said the war is “near operational standstill” and neither side is capable of launching major offensives.
“The whole pace of the campaign has slowed down, in part because both sides have become more aware that this is a marathon and not a sprint and that spending rates and preserving their ammunition are important,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss intelligence matters publicly.
Meanwhile, Kiev and Moscow continued to accuse each other of shelling Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, fueling international fears of catastrophe on the continent.
The Kremlin said on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin told French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in their first phone call since May 28 that Ukrainian shelling around the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant “increases the threat of a large-scale catastrophe that could lead to radioactive contamination of large areas.” . .”
The Zaporizhzhya nuclear facility in southern Ukraine has been controlled by Russian forces since shortly after the invasion began on February 24. Ukraine has accused Russia of stockpiling troops and weapons at the factory and of using its grounds to launch attacks on Ukraine-controlled territory. Ukrainian officials and military analysts say Moscow’s troops have cynically used the factory as a shield, knowing the Ukrainians are hesitant to return fire.
Russia has denied the charges, in turn accusing Ukrainian troops of repeatedly shelling the factory.
The French presidency said in a statement that Macron “underlined his concern” about the situation at the Zaporizhzhya plant and expressed his support for the deployment of an International Atomic Energy Agency mission to the site “as soon as possible”.
According to the French statement, Putin agreed to deploy the mission on the terms discussed. The Kremlin said that “the Russian side confirmed its willingness to provide necessary assistance to the agency’s experts.”
Yevgeny Balitsky, the Moscow-backed head of the temporary administration for the Russian-controlled part of the Zaporizhzhya region, said on Friday that an IAEA mission could approach the plant from Ukraine-occupied territory, a shift in Moscow’s position previously had suggested that the mission should travel from Crimea to the factory.
“I believe they can also come from the side of Ukraine,” Balitsky said in television comments. “We can get them safely to the factory and show them where the fire is coming from and who’s firing.”
Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s envoy to international organizations in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, said he believes a visit from the agency could realistically take place in early September.
After Thursday’s visit to Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Zelenskyy had asked him to ensure that Russia removes the factory-stored weapons as an “important step for world peace.”
“Zelenskyy asked this of us most of all: that Russia remove all mines and similar (weapons) there and that the issue soon cease to be scary. Because it is a threat,” Erdogan said.
Erdogan, whose country has maintained close relations with both Ukraine and Russia, said he would discuss the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said that “Russia must do its part in this regard.”
The Turkish president made the comments to a group of Turkish journalists on his return from a visit to Zelenskyy and UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Ukraine late Thursday. His comments were reported Friday by the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency and other media outlets.
At that meeting in the western city of Lviv, far from the front lines, leaders discussed expanding the POW exchange and arranging a visit to the UN nuclear power plant to help secure the nuclear power plant.
FOR OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:
— UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited a port in the Ukrainian coastal city of Odessa, where he praised ongoing efforts to maintain a shipping corridor in the Black Sea that will allow for the export of vital Ukrainian grain shipments. Guterres said 25 ships have departed Odessa and other Ukrainian ports since Russia and Ukraine signed a four-month grain export agreement in July. Those ships carried more than 600,000 tons of grain and other food supplies, such as wheat, corn, sunflower oil and soybeans, Guterres said. . Gutteres also pushed for unfettered access to global markets for Russian food and fertilizers, which are not subject to sanctions. “Without fertilizer in 2022, there may not be enough food in 2023,” he said.
— At least five people have been killed and ten others injured by the Russian shelling of towns and villages in the eastern region of Donetsk, according to regional authorities. At least one civilian was killed in Russian shelling on the city of Kharkiv on Friday. Russian missiles hit port facilities and a university building in the southern port city of Mykolaiv again.
Jill Lawless in London contributed.
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