KYIV: Ukrainian forces pressed their counteroffensive to retake the Russian-occupied southern region of Kherson, while a team of United Nations experts was on their way to inspect the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which was targeted by fresh shelling over the weekend.
Kherson and its eponymous capital have been contested by Russian troops since the war broke out six months ago.
"Ukrainian armed forces have launched their offensive in several areas in the south," Yaroslav Yanushevych, head of the Kherson regional administration, said on the Telegram platform.
In his nightly address on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not specifically mention the counteroffensive, but said they would oust the occupying forces "to the border."
"If they want to survive, it is time for the Russian military to flee. Go home," he added.
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Russian forces seized Kherson, a city of 280,000 inhabitants, on March 3, a week after invading Ukraine. It was the first major city to fall to them.
"Today, there was a powerful artillery attack on enemy positions in...the occupied Kherson region," local government official Serhiy Khlan told Ukraine's Pryamyi television channel. "This is what we have been waiting for since the spring: it is the beginning of the deoccupation of" the region, he said.
United States National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Ukraine's move was already having an impact on Russian military capabilities, as it forced them to reposition forces and deplete some units in the east.
"Because the Russians have had to pull resources from the east simply because of reports that the Ukrainians might be going more on the offense in the south," Kirby told reporters on Monday, CNN reported.
A senior Pentagon official said Russia was struggling to find soldiers to fight in Ukraine and that many new recruits were older, in poor shape and lacking training.
'Ukraine regaining its own'
Russia's defense ministry, meanwhile, claimed it had repulsed attacks in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions and inflicted "heavy losses" on Ukrainian forces.
Nataliya Gumenyuk, spokesman for the Ukrainian military's Southern Command, said Kyiv's forces were attacking from many directions to push the Russians back to the other bank of the Dnipro river.
In an update on Facebook on Tuesday morning, the Southern Command reported that the situation remained "tense" in its area of operations.
"The enemy attacked our positions five times, but was unsuccessful," it said. The city of Mykolaiv, just northwest of Kherson, had come under "massive bombardment" from Russian anti-aircraft missiles, with two civilians killed and 24 wounded, it added.
"Ukraine is regaining its own. And it will regain the Kharkiv region, Lugansk region, Donetsk region, Zaporizhzhia region, Kherson region, Crimea," Zelenskyy said in his address.
The city of Kherson lies some 200 kilometers (125 miles) southwest of the Zaporizhzhia atomic plant — the largest in Europe — which has also been occupied by Russian troops since early March.
Oleksandr Starukh, governor of the Zaporizhzhia region, said on Tuesday morning that Russia had launched a missile attack on the capital, also called Zaporizhzhia.
"According to preliminary information, there are no casualties," he said. "So far, no significant damage to infrastructure facilities has been detected."
UN team to assess damage
On Monday, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi said he and a team of experts were heading to the Zaporizhzhia plant to inspect it.
The team would assess the damage to the facilities and determine the functionality of the main and backup safety and security systems, the UN nuclear watchdog said.
"At the same time, the mission will undertake urgent safeguards activities to verify that nuclear material is used only for peaceful purposes," it added.
The plant was targeted over the weekend by fresh shelling, its operator Energoatom said, with Moscow and Kyiv trading blame for attacks around the complex of six nuclear reactors in Energodar, a town on the Dnipro's banks.
Ukraine initially feared an IAEA visit would legitimize the Russian occupation of the site, before finally supporting the idea of a mission.
Ukraine was the site of the world's worst nuclear catastrophe in 1986, when a reactor at the northern Chernobyl plant exploded and spewed radiation into the atmosphere.
Experts say any leak at Zaporizhzhia would more likely be on the scale of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.