RFE/RL – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Author)
NOVOLUHANSKE, Ukraine -- Top Ukrainian officials, including Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy, came under a shelling attack during a tour of the front line of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The officials fled to a bomb shelter before leaving from the area. Maryan Kushnir, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service who was also on the tour when the attack happened, said shells fell 300 meters from the location where the officials and journalists were visiting.
“Just now, they opened mortar fire at our interior minister," Kushnir said in a video report from the scene of the attack.
Earlier, Russia-backed separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine ordered a full military mobilization amid growing invasion fears.
Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik, the de facto heads of separatist-occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, released separate statements on February 19 announcing a full troop mobilization and urging reservists to show up at military enlistment offices. Men aged 18 to 55 will no longer be allowed to leave the area.
The move comes amid a spike in violence along the line of contact between Ukrainian forces and the separatists in the region in recent days, which has fueled Western fears that Moscow could use it as a pretext to attack Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military said shelling killed two soldiers on February 19 in the government-held part of the Donetsk region and that separatist forces were placing artillery in residential areas to try to provoke a response.
"As a result of a shelling attack, two Ukrainian servicemen received fatal shrapnel wounds," the military said.
In a report released on February 19, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported more than 1,500 ceasefire violations on February 18, the highest number this year. The OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission that is deployed in the conflict zone confirmed one civilian casualty in a government-controlled area of Donetsk.
The OSCE reported 600 cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine the previous day, including more than 300 explosions.
Multiple explosions could be heard on the morning of February 19 in the north of the city of Donetsk. Their origin was not immediately clear. Earlier, Ukraine's army reported the first death of a soldier in weeks and accused the rebels of sharply escalating attacks.
Both sides traded accusations, with separatists in the Donetsk region saying that several dozen shells had been fired at their territory while the Ukrainian Army spoke of 19 cease-fire violations by the breakaway factions.
Russian news agencies reported that 10,000 evacuees from eastern Ukraine had arrived in Russia as of the morning of February 19.
Separatists had announced plans to evacuate 700,000 people to southeast Russia, citing fears of an imminent attack by Ukrainian forces -- an accusation Kyiv flatly denied.
The separatist leaders said that women, children and the elderly will be the first to leave to Russia, which they said has agreed to take the people in.
Russia has given passports to tens of thousands of citizens in eastern Ukraine, a move the West has slammed. Russia could try to justify an invasion on the pretext of protecting its “citizens” in eastern Ukraine, Western officials have said.
Russia has denied it plans to invade Ukraine and has accused the United States of "hysteria."
The Kremlin has amassed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s border as it seeks to coerce the West into agreeing to a list of security demands, including a ban on Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
The West has rejected Russia’s main demands to end NATO expansion and roll back the alliance's gains in Central and Eastern Europe, saying sovereign nations have the right to choose their own alliances.
However, the United States and Europe have said they are willing to negotiate other demands put forward by Russia, including limitations on missile deployment and military exercises.
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