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Ukraine accuses Russia of kidnapping its nuclear plant head

The Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant and the Dnipro river on the other side of Nikopol, Ukraine on Aug, 22, 2022. [Evgeniy Maloletka, AP]

Ukraine’s nuclear power provider accused Russia on Saturday of “kidnapping” the head of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, a facility now occupied by Russian troops and located in a region of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved to annex illegally.

Russian forces seized the director-general of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Ihor Murashov, around 4 p.m. Friday, Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom said. That was just hours after Putin, in a sharp escalation of his war, signed treaties to absorb Moscow-controlled Ukrainian territory into Russia.

Energoatom said Russian troops stopped Murashov’s car, blindfolded him and then took him to an undisclosed location.

“His detention by (Russia) jeopardizes the safety of Ukraine and Europe’s largest nuclear power plant,” said Energoatom President Petro Kotin said.

Kotin demanded that Russia immediately release Murashov.

Russia did not immediately acknowledge seizing the plant director. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has staff at the plant, did not immediately acknowledge Energoatom’s claim of Murashov’s capture.

The Zaporizhzhia plant repeatedly has been caught in the crossfire of the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian technicians continued running it after Russian troops seized the power station. The plant’s last reactor was shut down in September amid ongoing shelling near the facility.

On Friday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the war in Ukraine was at “a pivotal moment.” He called Putin’s decision to take over more territory – Russia now claims sovereignty over 15% of Ukraine – “the largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War.”

Elsewhere in Ukraine, however, a Ukrainian counteroffensive that last month embarrassed the Kremlin by liberating a region bordering Russia was on the verge of retaking more ground, according to military analysts.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine likely will retake another key Russian-occupied city in the country’s east in the next few days. Ukrainian forces already have encircled the city of Lyman, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

Citing Russian reports, the institute said it appeared Russian forces were retreating from Lyman. That corresponds to online videos purportedly showing some Russian forces falling back as a Ukrainian soldier said they had reached Lyman’s outskirts.

The Ukrainian military has yet to claim taking Lyman, and Russia-backed forces claimed they were sending more troops to the area.

Ukraine also is making “incremental” gains around Kupiansk and the eastern bank of the Oskil River, which became a key front line since the Ukrainian counteroffensive regained control of the Kharkiv region in September.

Ukraine’s military claimed Saturday that Russia would need to deploy cadets before they complete their training because of a lack of manpower in the war. Putin ordered a mass mobilization of Russian army reservists last week to supplement his troops in Ukraine, and thousands of men have fled the country to avoid the call-up.

The Ukrainian military’s general staff said cadets at the Tyumen Military School and at the Ryazan Airborne School would be sent to participate in Russia’s mobilization. It offered no details on how it gathered the information, though Kyiv has electronically intercepted mobile phone calls from Russian soldiers amid the conflict.

In a daily intelligence briefing, the British Defense Ministry highlighted an attack Friday in the city of Zaporizhzhia that killed 30 people and wounded 88 others.

The British military said the Russians “almost certainly” struck a humanitarian convoy there with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russia is increasingly using anti-aircraft missiles to conduct attacks on the ground likely due to a lack of munitions, the British said Saturday.

“Russia’s stock of such missiles is highly likely limited and is a high-value resource designed to shoot down modern aircraft and incoming missiles, rather than for use against ground targets,” the British said. “Its use in ground attack role has almost certainly been driven by overall munitions shortages, particularly longer-range precision missiles.”

The British briefing noted the attack came while Putin was preparing to sign the annexation treaties.

“Russia is expending strategically valuable military assets in attempts to achieve tactical advantage and in the process is killing civilians it now claims are its own citizens,” it said.