Wednesday, March 22

Ukraine rebels accuse govt forces of mortar attack

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MOSCOW — Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine accused government forces on Thursday of opening fire on their territory four times in the last 24 hours and said they were trying to establish if anyone had been hurt or killed.

It was not immediately clear how serious the incidents were and there was no immediate reaction from Ukraine or from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been monitoring the situation in eastern Ukraine but has pulled out some of its monitors in recent days.

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Such incidents have occurred many times over the last eight years, but this latest one comes after Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops close to Ukraine’s borders while demanding that NATO pledge not to accept Kyiv as a member.

The West has threatened Moscow with new sanctions if it Ukraine attacks; Russia denies planning any attacks.

Any escalation in the years-long conflict between the Russian-backed separatists, who seized a swath of territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014, could fuel tensions between Russia and the West.

US intelligence agencies said earlier this month they believe Russia might fabricate a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine, potentially by producing propaganda videos showing a staged attack. Russia dismissed that.

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The assertions about shelling were made in a statement issued by representatives of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.

It said Ukrainian forces had used mortars, grenade launchers and a machine gun in four separate incidents on Thursday.

“Armed forces of Ukraine have crudely violated the ceasefire regime, using heavy weapons, which, according to the Minsk agreements, should be withdrawn,” the statement said.

Ukraine’s defense ministry could not be reached for comment.

Russia said this week it was pulling back some troops from areas adjacent to Ukraine after concluding planned drills, but Kyiv said it has seen no evidence of that and the United States said it suspected Moscow has in fact increased its presence by as many as 7,000 troops .

Russia’s lower house of parliament voted on Tuesday to ask President Vladimir Putin to recognize the two self-proclaimed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine as independent.

The Kremlin has signaled Putin has no immediate plans to do that. (Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov/Vladimir Soldatkin/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Stephen Coates)