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KHERSON, Ukraine — Russian forces shelled the Kherson area shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on June 8 visited the southern region where rescue teams are working to save thousands of people trapped by catastrophic flooding caused by the rupture of a major dam on the Dnieper River.

An RFE/RL correspondent on the ground reported that several loud explosions were heard in Kherson’s Korabel district around 2 p.m. local time as rescuers in rubber dinghies continued to evacuate people who had yet to leave the disaster area.

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Evacuees and rescuers alike sought shelter from the shelling behind buildings on one of the few dry spots as explosions rang nearby.

The head of the Kherson regional military administration, Oleksandr Prokudin, said Russians were shelling Kherson coastal region and the center of the city of Kherson.

Although the flooding forced Russian forces to withdraw farther east from the Dnieper River, they continued to shell the Ukrainian bank, albeit with less intensity, Ukrainian military spokeswoman Nataliya Humenyuk said on June 8.

“Because of the continued rise in the water level, the enemy was forced to pull back 5-15 kilometers from their previous positions, so the shelling isn’t so intense now, but Beryslavskiy district (just east of Kherson city) continues to be targeted,” Humenyuk told Ukrainian television.

Further hindering the work of rescuers, officials said, are land mines displaced by the floods.

A Ukrainian soldier who did not reveal his identity told RFE/RL that the Russian artillery’s main target had been a flooded rail bridge.

“They are aware that now with the mines on the road to Crimea flushed away, our advance is imminent,” the soldier said.

Separately, a 53-year-old man from the village of Vasylivka in Mykolayiv region, became the first fatality of the floods on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the Dnieper, said Serhiy Shaikhet, head of the regional police department.

Earlier, Zelenskiy thanked the rescuers and volunteers on June 8 as he visited a crossing point for the evacuees and discussed with authorities measures to alleviate the situation of the people affected.

Our task is to protect lives and help people as much as possible. I thank the rescuers and volunteers! I thank everyone involved in this work!”

Prokudin said on June 8 that the water level downstream had risen almost 6 meters with 600 square kilometers of the region under water, most of it on the Russian-occupied left bank of the Dnieper.

“This morning, the average level of the water is 5.61 meters. Some 600 square kilometers are under water, of which 32 percent is on the [Ukrainian-controlled] right bank and 68 percent on the [Russian-controlled] left bank,” Prokudin said in a video message.

He said that, as of 6 a.m. local time, almost 2,000 people had been rescued form the dangerous areas, most of them — 1,495 — from Kherson city’s Korabel district.

The Kherson region comprises 28,461 square kilometers.

WATCH: Boat after boat of exhausted and stressed civilians arrived in the flooded streets of Kherson on June 7. Some of the people had made it here from Russian-occupied areas on the east bank of the Dnieper River.

As high water wreaked havoc downstream, state-owned hydroelectric power plant operator Ukrhydroenerho said the level of the huge reservoir upstream dropped by a meter over the past day as water continued to gush out through the breach in the dam.

Ukrhydroenerho chief Ihor Syrota said in a televised interview on June 8 that a drop below the current water level at the Kakhovka Water Reservoir could be dangerous for the nearby Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Station.

According to Syrota, the water level is approaching 12.7 meters, after which there won’t be enough water for the cooling ponds at the station. Syrota added that the drop in water levels will also lead to water deficiencies in other regions.

It is still unclear what caused the breach, but Zelenskiy has pointed the finger at Russia as the perpetrator of an “absolutely deliberate” act.

Moscow has accused Ukraine of destroying the dam in an act of “deliberate sabotage” at the suggestion of the West. The dam had been under Russian control for more than a year when it was breached.

Ukrhydroenerho’s Syrota said that such a large breach could only have been caused by powerful explosions in three different spots inside the dam.

“To blow up the dam you need to drop at least three bombs weighing half a ton in one place. This cannot be done with a single missile. It was a very powerful explosion in three places inside the station,” Syrota said.

“To blow up the dam you need to drop at least three bombs weighing half a ton in one place. This cannot be done with a single missile. It was a very powerful explosion in three places inside the station,” Syrota said.

On the Russia-occupied side of Kherson, the Moscow-appointed mayor of Nova Kakhovka, Vladimir Leontyev, said early on June 8 the death toll was already five people, and 41 people were injured.

State-owned news agency TASS cited the country’s security services as saying on June 8 that some 14,000 houses have been flooded and 4,300 people evacuated.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross warned that the flooding would have a disastrous effect on efforts to locate land mines that had been planted in the region.

“We knew where the danger was,” said Erik Tollefsen, chief of the Weapon Contamination Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“Now we don’t know. All we know is that they are somewhere downstream.”

Dislodged mines transported by the water could pose serious dangers both to the local people and the rescuers, Tollefsen said.

The destruction of the dam came as Ukraine was preparing a long-anticipated counteroffensive to retake regions occupied by Russia since the invasion that started in February last year.

Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on June 7 that Ukrainian forces had gone on the offensive in Bakhmut, the theater of the fiercest fighting in eastern Ukraine, advancing up to 1.1 kilometers — the first advance by Kyiv’s troops in the area after their stark, monthslong defense in the city.

On June 8, Ukraine’s General Staff reported that Kyiv’s forces fought off several Russian attempts to regain lost ground around Bakhmut.

Russian troops also unsuccessfully tried to advance in the direction of the Donetsk cities of Mariynka and Avdiyivka, some 150 kilometers south of Bakhmut, the General Staff said.

With reporting by Aleksander Palikot in Kherson, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, AP, AFP, and Reuters

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