Ukraine Says Russian-Backed Artillery Strike Hits Kindergarten, Three Workers Injured

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Artillery shells struck a town on the Ukrainian government-controlled side of the frontline in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, damaging a kindergarten and wounding three adult civilians, the Ukrainian military said.

The strike on the school was part of a flare-up in shelling along the border that American officials warned might be part of an attempt by Russia to find a pretext for an invasion.

The Ukrainian military statement blamed what it called “occupation” forces for the strike, suggesting that the artillery was fired by Russia-backed separatist troops that have been operating in eastern Ukraine for eight years.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, did not comment directly on Ukraine’s allegation, but said that Moscow was worried about “an ongoing exchange of strikes” along the front and that “the first strike came from the Ukrainian side.”

The artillery strike reported by Ukraine was on the town of Stanytsia Luhanska in the country’s northeast, along the frontline in a grinding war between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels, and by itself, it was not unusual. It knocked out electricity and sent residents scrambling into basements to seek cover.

But the town is near the border with Russia, where Western governments say Moscow has amassed a large military force capable of invading.

In Brussels, the U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, said that the reports of shelling were “troubling.” While the United States was still gathering details, Mr. Austin said: “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.”

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, blamed Russia for a “severe violation” of the tenuous cease-fire agreement in the region, while President Volodymyr Zelensky described it as “provocative shelling.” Ukraine and Western leaders have warned in the past that a full-scale attack by Russia could be preceded by some sort of provocation, perhaps manufactured by Moscow.

The Kremlin was taking a different line. “We have warned many times that excessive concentration of Ukrainian forces near the contact line, together with possible provocations, can pose terrible danger,” Mr. Peskov said. He added that he hoped Western countries would warn Kyiv against a “further escalation of tensions.”

Pictures released by the Ukrainian military showed a room in a kindergarten strewn with bricks and toys. The military said that children were at the site during the shelling but did not report any injuries among the students. Three kindergarten workers were injured, the military said, adding that soldiers evacuated children and staff members to a shelter.

Both artillery and small-arms fire are common along the frontline, where an international monitoring group typically reports dozens to hundreds of ceasefire violations every day in recent years. Homes, schools, administrative buildings, and infrastructure including electrical pylons are often damaged. Earlier this year, Ukrainian authorities reported that a drone strike hit an abandoned school in an eastern Ukrainian town.