Ukraine says Russia must withdraw from Zaporizhzhia plant for protection plan to succeed

A view shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict outside the city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, November 24, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

BUCHAREST, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Russia must withdraw its heavy weapons and military personnel from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant if the U.N. atomic watchdog's efforts to create a protection zone are to succeed, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Wednesday.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been shuttling between Russia and Ukraine for several months to secure a deal between the two parties to create a protection zone around the Russian-controlled plant to prevent a nuclear disaster.

Kuleba met Grossi in Bucharest on Tuesday on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting just days after meeting a Russian delegation in Istanbul.

"We both agreed that Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has to be protected and to achieve that Russia has to withdraw its heavy weapons and military personnel from the station," Kuleba said.

"We will be considering ways on how to achieve this goal and Rafael will be doing shuttle diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow on this."

Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for shelling at the plant in recent months that has damaged buildings and knocked out power lines supplying the plant that are crucial to cooling the six reactors' fuel and avoiding a nuclear meltdown.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a subsidiary of Rosatom, Russia's state-run nuclear energy agency, to seize the plant's assets and transfer its Ukrainian staff to a new Russian legal entity. Kyiv said that move amounts to theft.

A European diplomatic source said the establishment of such a protection zone had been complicated since Ukraine retook the strategic city of Kherson.

"We want to create a protective zone, but are also facing Ukraine’s legitimate desire to recover its territory including this power plant which is even more important strategically because of Ukraine’s electricity needs since the Russians have bombarded its infrastructure," the source said.

"So we don’t want to put in a system that would make Russian occupation legitimate."

Reporting by John Irish Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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