Tensions escalate in Ukraine as Russian-backed separatists bomb a nursery school

Lviv, Ukraine – Tensions have risen in eastern Ukraine as Russian-controlled separatists bombed a nursery in Ukrainian government-controlled territory and Beware of escalationAmid fears that Russia may be looking to build an excuse to launch an invasion.

Mortars fired by separatists hit Kindergarten Number 21 in the village of Stanytsa Luhansk Thursday morning near the front line with Ukrainian forces, wounding three adults, according to the Ukrainian military. A video clip filmed by Ukrainian soldiers showed a hole in the wall of the school. The Ukrainian armed forces said that 20 children were evacuated but were unharmed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the Russian-backed separatists of committing a “provocative bombing” and as the US warned, Russia is now preparing to launch an invasion in the coming days. “Every indication we have is that they are ready to go to Ukraine,” President Joe Biden told reporters Thursday, “and we have reason to believe that they were engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go to Ukraine.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also said he was concerned that Russia was “trying to pretext an armed attack against Ukraine”.

The shooting took place at the same time that Russian-controlled separatists accused Ukraine of “large-scale” bombing on their territory and warned of a “significant deterioration” of the situation along the front line.

The unilaterally declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on Thursday issued “emergency statements” alleging that Ukrainian forces fired on civilian areas in nine villages, including with heavy-caliber mortars. Rodion Miroshnik, political advisor to the Luhansk Republic, accused Ukraine of ordering a “mass provocation”.

The two unrecognized states control part of Ukraine’s Donbass regions, which Russia helped create during the fighting in 2014 and still rely heavily on Moscow and its forces secretly stationed there.

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For weeks, the separatist leadership and Russian state media have accused Ukraine of preparing to launch an attack on the separatist regions. Western officials and independent experts worry that Russia may lay the groundwork for a pretext it could use to justify military intervention if it chooses to attack.

This week, Russia opened a war crimes investigation into separatists’ allegations of finding mass graves, presumably containing victims of alleged Ukrainian atrocities. Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference on Tuesday that a “genocide” was taking place in eastern Ukraine.

At least 14,000 people have died during the eight-year conflict in Ukraine, and many more have died from indiscriminate artillery fire from both sides. However, no evidence of massacres or genocide has emerged on a large scale as Russia claims.

Late Wednesday night, the Russian mission to the United Nations distributed a document alleging that Ukraine had committed large-scale war crimes in the eastern regions ahead of a UN Security Council session on the war.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at Thursday’s UN Council session accused Russia of plotting to fabricate a pretext for an imminent invasion of Ukraine, dismissing allegations of mass graves and saying that Moscow might also launch fake drone attacks or attacks with chemical or biological weapons.

Russia may attempt to claim such an event as “ethnic cleansing or genocide.” Blinken said. That, he said, would “make a mockery of a concept that we in this room do not take lightly.”

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“I also don’t take it lightly, based on my family history,” Blinken said, referring to his Holocaust-surviving stepfather.

Blinken said that US information now indicates that the build-up of Russian forces near Ukraine means that they are “preparing to launch an offensive against Ukraine in the coming days.”

He warned that after false allegations of a Ukrainian attack on the separatist were published, Russia might hold an emergency high-level meeting to address it, after which it would launch an attack. Blinken said the Russian plan would see aerial bombardment across Ukraine, backed by massive cyberattacks, as Russian tanks and troops move on cities, including the capital, Kiev.

“Here today, we lay it out in great detail with the hope that by sharing what we know with the world, we can influence Russia to abandon the course of war and choose a different path while there is still time,” Blinken said.

Russian officials denied the US accusations, describing them as “hysteria” and noted that the announced date for a possible Russian attack this week, February 16, had passed without anything being achieved.

“We have long explained everything and explained everything, and the declared history of the so-called invasion is behind us, so my advice to you is not to stand in an awkward position,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin told Blinkin. during a meeting of the United Nations Council.

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February 16 was reported as a possible day for a Russian attack after US officials privately briefed NATO allies last week, but US officials said the reason for their identification was because of information that Putin had ordered his military to prepare from. History.

Earlier this week, the Russian parliament passed a law urging Putin to recognize the independence of the breakaway regions from Ukraine. The move would be a significant escalation, opening the way for Russia to formally annex it as it did in Crimea in 2014.

But Putin has so far hinted that he will not make a decision on the appeal, saying on Tuesday that Russia will continue to work through the so-called Minsk agreements. The 2015 peace agreement aims to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s recognition of the unilaterally declared republics means its exit from the Minsk Agreement.

The Russian military this week claimed it was moving some of its forces from areas near Ukraine, and the Defense Ministry on Thursday again insisted that some troops now return to the base. The first units of Russia’s western and southern military districts have already arrived at their original bases far from the border and more are now moving there, a spokesman said.

But NATO countries and Ukraine, as well as independent analysts, have said so far that there is no evidence that Russia is withdrawing significant forces and that in fact it continues to build up.

Massive Russian exercises continue in Neighboring Belarus and the Black Sea, scheduled to last until February 20, after which Russia said its troops would leave. On Thursday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said it was time for Western countries to calm down, saying the exercises would end soon.

ABC News’ Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

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