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Ukraine, rebels trade shelling accusations; US says Russia wants war 'pretext'

A Russian tank T-72B3 fires as troops take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia, on Jan. 12, 2022. (Photo by AP)

Pro-Russia secessionists in eastern Ukraine have accused the West-backed Ukrainian government forces of launching an artillery barrage on a frontline village, with Moscow raising deep concern over the latest flare-up.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said the shelling targeted Petrivske village in the breakaway region in the wee hours of Friday. Another self-proclaimed republic, Luhansk, also reported two incidents of mortar fire.

“The situation on the line of contact has sharply escalated. The enemy is making attempts to unleash active hostilities," a message posted on its Telegram channel said.

The Interfax report cited a separatist leader as saying that the Ukrainian government forces had opened fire on several of their positions in a bid to escalate the conflict.

He described the shelling as a “large-scale provocation” and said that they had returned the fire.

The development came as Kyiv and the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine blamed each other for fueling fresh tensions after exchanging artillery and mortar attacks on Thursday.

Ukraine accused the Russian-backed rebels of shelling a kindergarten in the Ukrainian-controlled town of Stanytsia Luhanska, injuring two teachers.

The country's military in a statement posted on social media said the separatists had rained down artillery, mortar rounds and other munitions at its position across the line of control.

On Friday, the Ukrainian joint command center for the eastern front said the rebels had violated the ceasefire 20 times between midnight and 9.00 am while the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist groups said the army had fired 27 times.

Kyiv and the secessionist forces in eastern Ukraine have been at war for eight years. The truce between the warring sides has turned out to be fragile, with intermittent violations, most recently this week.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been monitoring the situation in eastern Ukraine, said Thursday that it had counted 591 violations of the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, up from 153 the previous day.

The Kremlin said Moscow was alarmed by the situation in eastern Ukraine and that the situation there looked potentially very dangerous.

Washington accused Moscow of looking for a pretext for war and claimed that the Russian troops engaged in drills near the Ukraine border could possibly get involved.

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, however, said the chance of a large-scale escalation of conflict is low, while Russia said it is withdrawing more troops and equipment from near Ukraine’s borders.

Russia submits letter to UN on war crimes in Donbass

The escalation came as the office of the UN secretary-general announced that Russia has submitted documents regarding alleged war crimes by the Ukrainian military against civilians in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass.

"The Russian Federation sent a letter to the Secretary-General regarding this issue, and they've asked us to circulate it to the Security Council, which we are doing," said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN secretary-general, as cited by TASS news agency. "We have no way of verifying this one way or another."

A Russian investigative committee earlier said it had launched a criminal probe into the discovery of mass graves of Donbass civilians killed in shelling.

Russia's lower house of parliament on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to urge Putin to recognize the independence of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, together known as Donbas. It came amid warnings to Moscow by Washington and the European Union not to follow through.

After the vote, Western countries, including Germany, moved swiftly to denounce the move, warning that it would hurt the ongoing diplomatic efforts.

The announcement by Russian lawmakers came after several Russian mechanized infantry units returned to their bases in the regions of Dagestan and Chechnya after completing drills in Crimea, Interfax reported on Friday, citing the country’s defense ministry.

The agency also quoted the ministry as saying that some 30 trucks carrying servicemen and equipment of the military district had left the training grounds and returned to their bases.

Moscow announced this week that it had begun pulling back some troops from areas adjacent to Ukraine. NATO, however, accused Russia of sending more troops to a massive military build-up around Ukraine, dismissing the announcement of partial withdrawal by Russia.

US repeats Russia plot to invade Ukraine in 'coming days'

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Thursday insisted in an address to the UN Security Council that Russian could seek to invade Ukraine, claiming that Moscow was preparing to take such military action in the "coming days."

Speaking before Blinken, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin appealed to council members not to turn the meeting "into a circus" by presenting a "baseless accusation saying that Russia allegedly was going to attack Ukraine."

"I think we've had enough speculation on that," Vershinin said. "We have a long ago clarified everything and explained everything."

Blinken also accused Moscow of planning to manufacture a pretext for an attack on Ukraine that could include "a fake, even a real, attack using chemical weapons," alleging that "Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide."

"The Russian government can announce today, with no qualification, equivocation or deflection, that Russia will not invade Ukraine. State it clearly. State it plainly to the world, and then demonstrate it by sending your troops, your tanks, the planes back to their barracks and hangars and sending your diplomats to the negotiating table," Blinken said.

Blinken made an appearance at a meeting of the Security Council on the Minsk agreements, which aims to end the eight-year-long protracted conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

Washington and its allies have been accusing Russia of plans to invade Ukraine by amassing 100,000 troops and armaments near the border with the former Soviet Union country.

Moscow has vehemently rejected the allegations, saying the military build-up is defensive in nature, slamming NATO over its increased military activity near Russian borders.

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