A major Soviet-era dam in the Russian-controlled part of southern Ukraine was breached on Tuesday, unleashing floodwaters across the war zone in what both Ukraine and Russia said was an intentional attack by the other's forces.
Ukraine accused Russian forces of blowing up the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power station in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities ordered hundreds of thousands of residents downriver to evacuate. Russian officials countered that the dam was damaged by Ukrainian military strikes in the contested area.
Unverified videos on social media showed water surging through the remains of the dam with bystanders expressing their shock, sometimes in strong language. Water levels raced up by several meters in a matter of hours.
The dam, 30 meters (32 yards) tall and 3.2 km (2 miles) long and which holds water equal to the Great Salt Lake in Utah in the United States, was built in 1956 on the Dnipro river as part of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant.
It also supplies water to the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014, and to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which is also under Russian control and which gets cooling water from the reservoir.
Some 22,000 people living across 14 settlements in Ukraine's southern Kherson region are at risk of flooding after the blast, the Moscow-installed head of the region said on Tuesday, according to Russian state-owned news agency RIA. The Ukrainian governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin, announced Tuesday morning that the evacuation from the area has already begun, noting that "the water will reach critical levels within five hours."
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said there was no immediate nuclear safety risk at the plant due to the dam failure but that it was monitoring the situation closely. The head of the plant also said there was no current threat to the station.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed Russia for the damage.
"The destruction of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant dam only confirms for the whole world that they must be expelled from every corner of Ukrainian land," Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Zelensky already warned in October of last year about a disaster in the event that the dam was bombed by Russia, and called on the West to "treat it like the use of weapons of mass destruction."
Ukraine's military said that Russian forces blew up the dam.
Russian-installed officials in Kherson said Ukraine struck the dam at 2300 GMT several times, destroying the hydraulic valves of the hydroelectric power station but said the dam was not totally destroyed.
"We ask all residents of coastal settlements to be ready for evacuation," the Russian-controlled region said. "Emergency and special services of the region are in full readiness and will provide all necessary assistance."
Reuters was unable to immediately verify the battlefield accounts from either side.
It was not immediately clear how the flood waters would affect Ukraine's long planned counter-offensive against Russian forces who are dug in across southern and eastern Ukraine.
Hours before the announcement of the dam explosion, the commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, announced that Ukrainian forces continued to move forward near the battle-scarred city of Bakhmut, located in the Donetsk region in the east of the country. On the other hand, the Ministry of Defense in Moscow claimed Monday night that the Russian army repelled "another broad attack" by the Ukrainian forces in Donetsk, caused many casualties to the Ukrainian army that had made progress in the region, and even damaged tanks and military vehicles.
On Monday night, Zelensky praised his forces in a video he distributed, saying that he is "grateful to each of our soldiers, to all our defenders, men and women, who gave us today the news we were expecting. Well done to the soldiers in the Bakhmut sector." He added that two units of the Ukrainian army "defended our positions and destroyed the occupiers with skill, decisiveness and efficiency, and most importantly – moved forward."
The Russian military claimed on the other hand that since Sunday they had repelled two large-scale Ukrainian attacks against their forces in eastern Ukraine, but officials in Kiev did not mention anything about a new comprehensive and significant counter-offensive campaign, avoiding questions on the subject. At the same time, senior officials and Russian soldiers said that the situation in the city of Bakhmut is "very difficult" for Moscow.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, in the repulsed Ukrainian attack, 1,500 Ukrainian soldiers were killed, 28 tanks were destroyed - including eight Leopard tanks - as well as 109 armored vehicles. In Kiev, Moscow's claims were not addressed.