A torrent of water burst through a massive dam on the Dnipro River that separates Russian and Ukrainian forces in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, flooding a swathe of the war zone, forcing villagers to flee and prompting finger-pointing from both sides.
Ukraine said Russia had committed a deliberate war crime in blowing up the Soviet-era Nova Kakhovka dam. The Kremlin blamed Ukraine, saying it was trying to distract from the launch of a major counteroffensive Moscow says is faltering.
Some Russian-installed officials said the dam had collapsed on its own.
Neither side offered immediate public evidence of who was to blame. The Geneva Conventions explicitly ban targeting dams in war because of the danger to civilians.
Hundreds of people were evacuated from settlements along the southern stretch of Ukraine’s Dnipro river as flood waters submerged streets, town squares and homes.
It was not immediately clear if anyone had been killed. The White House said it could not say conclusively what caused the destruction of the dam, but spokesman John Kirby said it had probably caused “many deaths”.
Lidia Zubova, 67, waiting for a train out of the city of Kherson in Ukrainian government-controlled territory after abandoning her inundated village of Antonivka, told Reuters: “Our local school and stadium downtown were flooded… The road was completely flooded, our bus got stuck.”
Ukrainian police released video of an officer carrying an elderly woman to safety and others rescuing dogs in villages being evacuated as the waters rose. Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko accused Russia of shelling areas from where people were being evacuated and said two police officers were wounded.
On the Russian-controlled bank of the Dnipro, the Moscow-installed mayor of Nova Kakhovka said water levels had risen to 11 metres (36 feet). He did not say how high water levels were before the dam burst.
Residents reached by telephone there told Reuters that some had decided to stay despite being ordered out.
“They say they are ready to shoot without warning,” said one man, Hlib, describing encounters with Russian troops. “If you come a metre closer than allowed, they immediately start yelling obscenities.”
Yevheniya, a female resident, said the water was up to the knees of the Russian soldiers walking the main street in high rubber boots. “If you try to go somewhere they don’t allow, they immediately point their machine guns at you,” she said. “More and more water is coming every hour. It’s very dirty.”
The Kazkova Dibrova zoo on the Russian-held riverbank was completely flooded and all 300 animals were dead, a representative said via the zoo’s Facebook account.
The small town of Oleshky, on the Russian-controlled bank of the Dnipro, was almost completely flooded, a Russian-appointed official said.
“Evacuation … is possible only using special equipment,” Andrei Alexeyenko, chairman of the Russian-appointed government of Ukraine’s Kherson province, said on Telegram.
The vast reservoir behind the dam is one of the main geographic features of southern Ukraine, 240 km (150 miles) long and up to 23 km (14 miles) wide.
An expanse of countryside fans out in the flood plain below, with low-lying villages on the Russian-held southern bank particularly vulnerable.
POISED FOR COUNTEROFFENSIVE
The dam’s destruction threatened a new humanitarian disaster in the centre of the war zone and transformed front lines just as Ukraine prepares a long-awaited counteroffensive to drive Russian troops from its territory.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said his forces had thwarted the first three days of the offensive in battles that had left more than 3,700 Ukrainian soldiers dead or wounded.
Ukraine dismissed the Russian statements as lies but gave no details on the attacks. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an interview published on Saturday that Ukraine was poised to unleash its much-heralded major counteroffensive, using newly supplied Western battle tanks and armoured vehicles.
Russia has controlled the dam since early in its 15-month-old invasion, although Ukrainian forces recaptured the Dnipro’s northern bank last year. Both sides had long accused the other of plotting to destroy the dam.
“Russian terrorists. 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.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the dam’s destruction “an outrageous act, which demonstrates once again the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine”.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations had no independent information on how the dam was breached, describing it as “another devastating consequence” of Russia’s invasion.
The U.N. Security Council will meet later on Tuesday to discuss the dam at the request of both Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine accused Russia of an “ecological and technological act of terrorism” while Russia cast it as an “act of sabotage carried out by Ukraine”, according to the requests seen by Reuters.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also blamed “deliberate sabotage by the Ukrainian side”.
Russian-installed officials had earlier given conflicting accounts, some saying the dam had been hit by Ukrainian missiles overnight, others that it had collapsed on its own due to earlier damage.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said the Zaporizhzhia power plant, upriver on the reservoir’s Russian-occupied bank, should have enough water to cool its reactors for “some months” from a separate pond, even as the huge reservoir drains out.
Video showed water surging through the remains of the dam – which is 30 metres (yards) tall and 3.2 km (2 miles) long.
Some 22,000 people living across 14 settlements in the Kherson region are at risk of flooding, Russia’s RIA news agency quoted the Moscow-installed head of the region as saying.