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'False flag': Ukrainian kindergarten hit by military shells as US officials warn Russian invasion is 'imminent'

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ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

A kindergarten was struck by artillery shells in a town on the Ukrainian government-controlled side of the front line in eastern Ukraine Thursday, wounding three adult civilians, the Ukrainian military said.

In a Facebook post, the Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation accused "Russian occupation troops" of shelling the town of Stanytsia in the Luhansk region, referring to Russian-backed separatist troops that have been causing violence in the area for eight years. The separatists in turn accused the Ukrainian government of opening fire on the territory four times over the past 24 hours, according to Reuters.

A spokesman for the Kremlin did not comment directly on Ukraine's allegation, but said there is "an ongoing exchange of strikes" near the border between Ukraine and Russia and that "the first strike came from the Ukrainian side," the New York Times reported.

The breach of a tenuous cease-fire agreement in the region was received by western leaders as a possible "false flag" operation by Russia to create a pretext to launch an invasion of Ukraine.

U.K Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters Thursday, "the picture is continuing to be very grim."

"A kindergarten was shelled in what we are taking to be, what we know was a false flag operation designed to discredit the Ukrainians, designed to create a pre-text, a spurious provocation for Russian action," Johnson said.

"We fear very much that that is a thing we will see more of over the next few days," he added.

American officials have likewise warned that "evidence on the ground" suggests a Russian invasion of Ukraine is "imminent."

"We have reason to believe that they are engaged in a false-flag operation to have an excuse to go in," President Biden told reporters on Thursday. "Every indication we have is they are prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine."

Moscow has repeatedly denied having plans to invade Ukraine and earlier this week claimed that troops deployed along the border had completed military exercises there and were returning to base.

But the United States and NATO allies have said there was no evidence to support Russia's claims. Satellite images reported by Axios show a military pontoon bridge has been established over the Pripyat River in Belarus, less than four miles from the Ukraine border. Moscow has actually increased troop presence on the border "by as many as 7,000 troops," according to a senior administration official.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the reports of the shelling were "troubling."

“We’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict. So we’ll be watching this very closely,” he said, speaking from Brussels.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba blamed Russia for a "severe violation" of the cease-fire agreement and President Volodymyr Zelensky called it a "provocative shelling."

Russia turned the accusations around and blamed Ukraine for a "further escalation of tensions."

“We have warned many times that excessive concentration of Ukrainian forces near the contact line, together with possible provocations, can pose terrible danger,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

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