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Ukraine, Russian-backed rebels trade accusations of shelling in potential escalation

Ukrainian military says kindergarten was hit, accuses Russian-backed forces of ‘special cynicism’; Russian separatists claim Kyiv is escalating the conflict

Ukrainian servicemen survey the impact areas from shells that landed close to their positions during the night on a front line outside Popasna, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, on February 14, 2022. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)
Ukrainian servicemen survey the impact areas from shells that landed close to their positions during the night on a front line outside Popasna, Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, on February 14, 2022. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in an eastern district of Lugansk traded allegations of an escalation in fighting Thursday, after US claims that Moscow is seeking a pretext to invade.

Ukraine has been in conflict with rebels in the east of the country since 2014, in a war that has cost thousands of lives, but the latest reports will intensify fears of Russian intervention.

The Ukrainian military’s command center in the east alleged that Russian-backed forces “with special cynicism” had fired heavy artillery at the village of Stanytsia-Luganska.

“The shells hit a kindergarten,” it said. “According to preliminary data two civilians were injured. Public infrastructure was also damaged. Half of the settlement was left without electricity.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba did not mention any injuries but condemned the alleged shelling.

“We call on all partners to swiftly condemn this severe violation of Minsk agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation,” he said, referring to a 2014 international accord supposed to halt the war.

Photographs on the command center’s Facebook account showed civilians sheltering in a cellar and a kindergarten playroom with rubble strewn on the floor and a shell hole in the wall.

Separately, Russian news agencies reported that the separatist force in Lugansk has claimed that Ukraine has escalated fighting.

“Over the past 24 hours, the situation on the line of contact has escalated significantly,” Yan Leshchenko, head of the People’s Militia in the self-declared Lugansk republic, told reporters.

“The enemy, on the direct orders of the Kyiv military-political leadership, is making attempts to escalate the conflict.”

Ukraine and its Western allies say Russia has deployed a huge potential invasion force on Ukraine’s borders, and US intelligence has accused Moscow of seeking to create a pretext by faking an atrocity.

NATO says more than 100,000 Russian forces are on the border, but Moscow insists it is seeking a diplomatic route to resolve its security concerns and roll back the West’s influence in Eastern Europe.

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