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Two explosions hit Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, gas pipeline on fire

This photo shows a military car at the center of a powerful explosion, which rocked the downtown area of the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on Friday.

Two explosions have rocked Ukraine’s eastern separatist region of Luhansk, one hitting a gas pipeline, amid fears that Kiev might be trying to provoke a flare-up involving the pro-Russian forces there.

The first blast caused a fire in the pipeline that lies near Luhansk, one of the main cities in Ukraine's breakaway region of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Luhansk, on Friday, Reuters reported, citing Russian news agencies.

The pipeline was struck by "a powerful explosion," Interfax news agency reported.

The second explosion occurred around 40 minutes later, hitting the city itself, Russia’s TASS news agency said.

There have been no reports on possible casualties or damage yet.

Luhansk and its neighboring city of Donetsk, which are known together as Donbass region, broke away from Ukraine in 2014.

Kiev and Donbass’ pro-Russian forces have been at war ever since.

On Friday, the separatists said the Ukrainian military had violated a so-called ceasefire between the two sides 27 times.

First buses carrying people evacuated from east Ukraine arrive in Russia

The Donetsk People's Republic announced a mass evacuation of the region's residents to Russia earlier on Friday after an increase in shelling. The pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian government forces blamed each other for the spike in tensions.

The first buses carrying people evacuated from the region arrived in Russia's Rostov region late on Friday, TASS said.

In 2014, Ukraine’s two regions of Donetsk and Luhansk - collectively known as the Donbass - were turned into self-proclaimed republics by ethnic Russians, leading to a bloody conflict between the government forces and the armed pro-Russian forces.

Ukraine, as well as the European Union (EU) and the US, claims that Russia has a hand in the conflict that erupted in the Donbass and has so far killed more than 14,000 people. Moscow denies the allegation.

The allies have also been accusing Moscow of seeking to invade Ukraine, citing a Russian military buildup near the border with Ukraine. Russia likewise denies the accusation, saying it is free to move its troops around within its own borders.

The Western allies have refused to tone down their accusations even as Russia has been drawing down the number of the forces that it has deployed along the common border.

Earlier this month, US President Joe Biden warned that “a Russian invasion” of Ukraine would lead to the imposition of tough sanctions against Moscow, including permanent suspension of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which is supposed to take the Russian gas to northeastern Germany.

“We will bring an end to it," Biden claimed, referring to the gas pipeline, which runs under the Balkan Sea. The project seeks to double the amount of the Russian gas flow to Europe.

Italy: Any EU sanctions on Russia should not hit energy

Also on Friday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi asserted that any sanctions that might be imposed on Russia by the European Union should not include energy imports.

"We are discussing sanctions with the EU and in the course of these discussions we have made our position known, that they should be concentrated on narrow sectors without including energy," Draghi said at a news conference.

Italy imports 90% of its gas requirements, with Russia serving as a key supplier.

The Italian premier added that Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked to meet him, and he hoped it would be possible to organize a meeting between Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as well.

Draghi, however, noted that his government was looking into other possible gas supplies should imports from Russia be hit due to a conflict.

"Putin has talked of the possibility that Russia will continue to guarantee its supplies (to Italy) and increase them if necessary," Draghi said.

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