By Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) -Moscow and Kyiv traded fresh accusations on Saturday of shelling around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which has been a focus of international concern that fighting in the area could trigger a disaster.
Zaporizhzhia, Europe's largest nuclear power plant, has been controlled by Russian forces since early March, soon after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Ukrainian staff continue to operate it and in recent weeks the two sides have traded blame for shelling near the plant.
Ukraine's state nuclear company Energoatom energy agency said Russian troops again shelled the grounds of the plant complex in the last 24 hours.
"The damage is currently being ascertained," Energoatom wrote in a statement on Telegram.
Moscow's defence ministry accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the plant complex three times in the last 24 hours.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield report.
"A total of 17 shells were fired, four of which hit the roof of Special Building No. 1, where 168 assemblies of U.S. WestingHouse nuclear fuel are stored," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
It said 10 shells exploded near a dry storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and three more near a building that houses fresh nuclear fuel storage. It said the radiation situation at the plant remained normal.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday the situation at Zaporizhzhia remained "very risky" after two of its six reactors were reconnected to the grid following shelling that caused the nuclear plant to be disconnected for the first time in its history.
Energoatom said on Friday evening that both of the plant's two functioning reactors had been reconnected to the grid and were again supplying electricity after they were fully disconnected on Thursday.
The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, wants to visit the plant in the south of the country and agency chief Rafael Grossi said on Thursday that it was "very, very close" to being able to send officials there.
Energoatom's statement on Saturday said its staff at the plant had come under "increased pressure" ahead of the likely visit.
"The (Russians), preparing for the IAEA's visit, have increased pressure on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant's personnel- in order to hush up their testimonies about the crimes of the occupiers at the station and using it as a military base," it said.
The foreign ministers of the G7 countries have previously urged Russia to hand the plant back to Ukraine. Earlier this month U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said military equipment and personnel should be withdrawn from the plant and called for efforts to ensure it is not the target of military operations.
FIGHTING RAGES ON
Ukraine's armed forces said in a briefing note on Saturday morning that it had beaten back Russian assaults on three towns in the eastern region of Donetsk.
All three are on the approach to the larger town of Bakhmut, an important strategic outpost for Ukraine due to its size and road links.
A separate Facebook post by Ukraine's southern command said it had hit Russian air defence systems in Kherson region with air strikes, and that Ukrainian artillery had destroyed two Smerch MLRS systems.
The Russian ministry, in its daily briefing, said it had destroyed a large ammunition depot in Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk region that had contained U.S.-made HIMARS rocket systems and shells for M777 Howitzers.
The Russian Air Force shot down a MiG-29 aircraft in the eastern Donetsk region, the ministry said, and destroyed another six missile and artillery weapons depots in the Donetsk, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions.
Reuters was not able to verify those accounts.
In a potential boost to an internationally brokered agreement that has seen Ukraine resume shipping grains from its Black Sea ports this month, Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Saturday that merchant sailors will be allowed to leave Ukraine if they receive approval from their local military administrative body.
The change would cover male crew members of sea and river vessels, as well as students who need to undertake practical training aboard ships, he added.
Ukrainian men aged 18-60 have largely been barred from leaving Ukraine under a state of martial law imposed as the country battles the Russian invasion. Women of all ages have been free to leave throughout the war.
President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Russia's neighbour on Feb. 24 saying a "special operation" was needed to demilitarise the country and remove perceived security threats to Russia.
Ukraine and the West have dismissed this as a baseless pretext for an imperialist war of conquest.
(Reporting by Max Hunder and Reuters bureausEditing by Frances Kerry)