KHERSON, Ukraine: Thousands were fleeing their homes Wednesday after the destruction of a frontline Russian-held dam in Ukraine flooded dozens of villages and parts of a nearby city, sparking fears of a humanitarian disaster.
Downstream from the breached Kakhovka dam, Ukrainian police and troops in the southern city of Kherson were bringing people out from inundated areas in inflatable boats, most clutching only a few documents and pets.
Despite the evacuations, officials said Russian forces have kept shelling the residential neighbourhoods.
Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the dam being ripped open early Tuesday, prompting Turkey’s president to propose to both nations’ leaders an international probe of the breach.
The destruction has also raised fears of an environmental disaster and nuclear safety risks as it provides cooling water for Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
One woman, Nataliya Korzh, 68, had swum part of the way to escape from her house.
She emerged from a rescue boat barefoot, her legs covered with scratches, her hands trembling from cold.
“All my rooms are underwater. My fridge is floating, the freezer, everything. We’re used to shooting, but a natural disaster is a real nightmare. I wasn’t expecting that,” she told AFP.
She feared for her two dogs and cat, which she was unable to save.
“To get to the room where the dogs were, I would have had to dive. I don’t know what’s happened to them.”
The water was waist-deep in central streets of Kherson and ground floors of buildings were submerged.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s emergency services, Oleksandr Khorunzhyi, said that “currently there is no information about the dead or injured”.
Water levels in Kherson have risen by five metres, he said.
While finger-pointing continued over the dam’s destruction, Moscow accused Kyiv of blowing up a key pipeline that Russia used before the war to export ammonia and whose reactivation it has requested as part of grain deal talks.
The governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, said 1,700 people had been evacuated so far and reported that ongoing shelling was endangering rescuers and locals.
Moscow-installed officials on the Russian-occupied side of the river said on Tuesday that more than 1,200 people had been evacuated.
A policeman, Sergiy, 38, was using a radio to coordinate the rescue boats.
“Today we’ve already saved 30 people, 10 pets. There was one child. We will work until we’ve brought out all the people,” he told AFP.
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Washington warned there would be “likely many deaths” due to the breach of the Kakhovka dam.
Kyiv said the destruction of the dam — seized by Russia in the early hours of the war — was an attempt by Moscow to hamper its long-awaited offensive, which Ukraine’s leader stressed would not be affected.
The United Nations warned that hundreds of thousands could be affected on both sides of the frontline.
The governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, said 1,852 houses had been flooded by early Wednesday.
“According to our forecasts, the water level will increase by one metre within the next 20 hours,” he warned.
An official in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Daria Zarivna, said that in the occupied territory “the Russians simply abandoned people” and in the town of Oleshky on the opposite bank from Kherson, “many spent the night on the roofs of houses”. (Story continues below)
Water reaches the eaves of houses in Kherson, after the breach of the Kakhovka dam. (Photo: Reuters)
Zelensky accused Russia of detonating an “environmental bomb of mass destruction”, saying authorities expected up to 80 settlements with tens of thousands of residents to be flooded and urging the world to “react”.
“This crime carries enormous threats and will have dire consequences for people’s lives and the environment,” Zelensky said.
But the explosion would “not affect Ukraine’s ability to de-occupy its own territories”, he added.
Last October, Zelensky accused Russia of planting mines at the dam, warning that its destruction would spur a new wave of refugees into Europe.
Kyiv said 150 tonnes of engine oil had spilled into the river, and the agricultural ministry said about 10 thousand hectares of farmland on the right bank of the river would be flooded and “several times more” on the left bank.
China expressed “serious concern” over the dam destruction, while EU chief Charles Michel called it a “war crime” and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg condemned it as “outrageous”.
Russia has said the dam was partially destroyed by “multiple strikes” from Ukrainian forces and urged the world to condemn Kyiv’s “criminal acts”.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said he proposed setting up an international commission to investigate the destruction of the dam in calls with Zelensky and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The Soviet-era dam, built in the 1950s, sits on the Dnipro River, which provides cooling water for the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant some 150 kilometres away.
The UN nuclear watchdog agency said the dam break was posing “no short-term risk” to the plant.
Separately, Moscow accused a Ukrainian “sabotage” group of blowning up a section of the Togliatti-Odesa pipeline that Russia used to export ammonia and that is part of the international talks on allowing grain exports from Ukraine amid the conflict with Russia.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of firing at the ammonia pipeline.