Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels swap frontline bombing accusations

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FILE PHOTO: The remains of a Ukrainian army 120mm mortar shell are seen on a front line of the pro-Russian position on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Slaviansk , May 17, 2014. REUTERS / Yannis Behrakis

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KADIIVKA, Ukraine, Feb 17 (Reuters) – Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces on Thursday traded accusations that each had fired across the ceasefire line in eastern Ukraine, ringing the alarm at a time when Western countries warned of the possibility of a Russian invasion any day.

Details of the incidents could not be independently confirmed, and initial reports suggested they were of a similar scale to ceasefire violations that have been common throughout the eight-year conflict.

But they come at a time of global concern over the prospect of a wider war, with more than 100,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. Moscow denies planning an invasion and said this week it was withdrawing some troops, although Western countries say they are unconvinced.

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Separatists have accused government forces of opening fire on their territory four times in the past 24 hours, while Ukraine has accused rebels of firing shells, some of which hit a garden. children, causing an electric shock to two civilians.

A Reuters photographer in the town of Kadiivka in Ukraine’s rebel-held Luhansk region heard the sound of artillery fire from the line of contact but was not immediately able to assess the details of the incident.

Kiev and its Western allies have repeatedly said in recent weeks that they believe Moscow could use an incident in the separatist dispute as justification for an invasion. Russia, for its part, has accused Kiev of trying to provoke an escalation to retake rebel territory by force.

A diplomatic source said a long-time monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe recorded several shellings along the line of contact in the early hours of Thursday.

Since a 2015 ceasefire ended major fighting in the separatist conflict, the OSCE has typically reported dozens of ceasefire violations each day, with significant shelling or clashes making injuries or deaths several times a month.

The self-declared People’s Republic of Luhansk, one of the two rebel regions, said Ukrainian forces used mortars, grenade launchers and a machine gun in four separate incidents on Thursday.

“Ukrainian armed forces grossly violated the ceasefire regime, using heavy weapons, which according to the Minsk agreements should be withdrawn,” the separatists said in a statement.

Referring to the rebels, the Ukrainian army said: “With particular cynicism, Russian occupation troops shelled the village of Stanytsa Lugansk in the Lugansk region. Following the use of heavy artillery weapons by terrorists, shells hit the kindergarten building. According to preliminary data, two civilians received a shell shock.”

Russia’s lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to ask President Vladimir Putin to recognize the two self-declared breakaway republics as independent. Read more

The Kremlin has signaled that Putin has no immediate plans to do so.

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Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov, Vladimir Soldatkin, Andrew Osborn, Pavel Polityuk; Additional reporting by Anton Zverev in Donetsk; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel, Peter Graff

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