IAEA team heads for Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

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KYIV (Reuters) - A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) set off on Wednesday from the Ukrainian capital towards the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to inspect for damage after shelling nearby sparked fears of a radiation disaster.

Russian forces captured the plant soon after they launched their Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and it is close to front lines. Russia and Ukraine have traded accusations of firing shells that have endangered the plant.

A Reuters witness said the IAEA team set off from Kyiv in a convoy of vehicles. The mission is being led by the IAEA chief Rafael Grossi and comes after extensive negotiations.

"We are now finally moving after six months of strenuous efforts," Grossi told reporters before the convoy set off, adding that the mission planned to spend "a few days" at the site.

"We have a very important task there to perform - to assess the real situations there, to help stabilise the situation as much as we can."

It was not clear when the IAEA team would reach Europe's biggest nuclear plant and when it would conduct its inspection. Both sides in the war have in recent days reported regular shelling in the vicinity.

"We are going to a war zone, we are going to occupied territory and this requires explicit guarantees, not only from the Russian federation but also from Ukraine. We have been able to secure that,” Grossi said.

He said the IAEA hoped to set up a permanent mission at the plant, which is being run by Ukrainian technicians. Grossi said one of the priorities of the mission would be speaking to them.

"That’s one of the most important things I want to do and I will do it,” he said.

The United States has urged a complete shutdown of the plant and called for a demilitarised zone around it.

The Interfax news agency quoted a Russian-appointed Zaporizhzhia government official as saying on Wednesday that two of the plant's six reactors were running.

Yevgeny Balitsky, the head of the Russian-installed administration, told Interfax that the IAEA inspectors "must see the work of the station in one day".

Ukraine on Tuesday accused Russia of shelling a corridor that IAEA officials would need to use to reach the plant in an effort to get them to travel via Russian-annexed Crimea instead. There was no immediate response from Russia.

Ukraine's armed forces general staff said Russia was attacking with tanks, rockets and artillery along a contact line in the Zaporizhzhia region - part of which, including the city of Zaporizhzhia, remains under Ukraine's control.

"The enemy is regrouping units of the 3rd Army Corps ... with the aim of resuming the offensive in the (Zaporizhzhia) direction," it said.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Robert Birsel)