Stansya Luhanska, Ukraine – Fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces has been raging for eight years. Daily skirmishes, mostly low-level, became routine.
But Thursday’s outbreak of hostilities, which came at an especially perilous moment in the tense standoff between Russia and the West, brought fear of a larger conflict close to home in this remote, dusty city not far from the Russian border.
The Ukrainian military said shells fired by Russian-backed separatists in the morning hit a kindergarten, wounding three teachers, but not students, as well as a secondary school playground.
“It was a whistling sound, then an explosion,” said Tatiana Bodicai, the principal of the school called the Fairytale Kindergarten.
She said teachers took students to a windowless corridor, the safest place in the building, and waited for parents to pick them up. “To create a calm psychological atmosphere, the teachers told the stories, and everyone who needed them got a hug,” said Mrs. Bodicai.
The military also said two soldiers and a woman were wounded at a bus stop. No deaths have been reported.
And in the evening, the cracks of sharp blasts echoed over the buildings, and flashes of light from incoming artillery shells cast shadows on the trees. Explosions echoed through the dark streets of the buildings. At least two six-shot shells hit the city, arriving with a sharp hiss before exploding. The drivers stopped their cars and got off and listened anxiously.
One of the shells fell on an apartment building on Magistralna Street, which led to the explosion of a gas pipe and a fire. Later in the evening, authorities said that no one had been killed or injured.
Each side blamed the other for the bombing, which was viewed with concern in Ukraine and in Western capitals for the possibility of it turning into a larger conflict.
Analysts said that the nature of the bombing, which hit several locations along the line of contact in one day, is unusual compared to recent months.
“Today was simultaneous, long-distance bombing,” said Maria Zulkina, a Ukrainian political analyst with the Foundation for Democratic Initiatives. “It was synchronized. That is noteworthy.”
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Jobs as of February 13
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Military locations as of Feb 13
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The United States said Russia had amassed about 150,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. Western military analysts have speculated that Russia will claim an unprovoked attack, possibly of Moscow’s own making, to justify intervention in eastern Ukraine, possibly under the pretense of acting as a peacekeeping force.
The artillery bombardment began in the early hours of Thursday morning and continued into the evening, when the cracks of sharp blasts echoed over the buildings and flashes of light from the incoming artillery shells cast shadows on the trees on the outskirts of town. The Ukrainian military reported 47 ceasefire violations in at least 25 different locations, including two towns, Stanytsia Luhanska and Popasna.
After a lull in the afternoon, artillery fire resumed Thursday evening in Stanytsia Luhanska, a solid town of dusty and potholed roads surrounded by agricultural fields. There is a gas station, a few leafy residential streets and not much else.
The shells in or near the town exploded in at least two volleys of six each. The drivers stopped their cars and got off and listened anxiously.
Amidst the fighting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky flew to the front line to visit the troops, and Ukrainian media quoted him as saying he was proud of the army for having “provided an adequate repulsion to the enemy”.
In Brussels, the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin III, said the reports of the bombing were “disturbing.”
While the US was still piecing together the details, Mr. Austin said: “We’ve been saying for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict. So we’ll be watching this closely.”
This sequence of events has happened before with Russia. In 2008, the Russian military invaded Georgia after fighting erupted between government forces and a Russian-backed separatist movement in South Ossetia, a region of Georgia now recognized by Moscow as an independent country.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, Blame it on Russia for a “serious violation” of the fragile ceasefire agreement in the region, while President Zelensky described it as “provocative bombing. “
The Kremlin was taking a different position. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, “We have warned several times that an excessive concentration of Ukrainian forces near the line of contact, combined with possible provocations, can pose a terrible danger.” He added that he hoped Western countries would warn Kiev against “further escalation of tensions”.
Russia-backed separatists have also blamed the Ukrainian military. Leonid Bashnik, president of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, said the Ukrainian military bombed civilians early this morning – a claim that could not be independently verified.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, said that about a quarter of the population of the breakaway regions – 750,000 out of about three million – are Russian citizens. A strike that injures or kills a Russian citizen may increase the risk of a Russian response.
To highlight what it called reckless shootings into civilian areas, the Ukrainian military moved reporters, including one from the New York Times, to the site of the damaged kindergarten. The strike also caused power outages and forced residents to basements in search of shelter.
Artillery and small arms fire is common along the frontline, with an international monitoring group typically reporting dozens to hundreds of ceasefire violations every day in recent years.
Homes, schools, office buildings, and infrastructure, including power towers, are often damaged. Earlier this year, Ukrainian authorities reported that a drone strike hit an abandoned school in an eastern Ukrainian town.
Andrew E. Cramer Reported from Stanytsia Luhanksa, Ukraine, and Valerie Hopkins from Kiev. Maria Varnikova Contributed to reporting from Kiev, and Ivan Nikiburnko from Moscow.