Mortars explode as Ukraine minister tours front line

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NOVOLUGANSKE, UKRAINE (AFP) - A dozen mortar shells fell within a few hundred metres of Ukraine's interior minister on Saturday (Feb 19) as he met journalists on a tour of the front line with Russian-backed rebels.

The minister, Mr Denys Monastyrskiy, was forced to seek cover as the shells exploded, shortly after he gave on-camera interviews to international media, AFP correspondents saw.

There was no sign that anyone was hurt in the volley of shells, which fell as the minister left a front-line area where he had given interviews in the trench line separating government forces from the rebels.

The journalists and officials left the area shortly afterwards.

Both the government and separatist forces have accused each other of escalating the conflict in recent days, and Ukraine reported the death of a soldier on Friday, the fourth in the past two months.

Moscow-backed rebels who hold parts of the Lugansk and Donetsk districts on the Russian border have alleged that the government is plotting a campaign to drive them out of the area.

But Kyiv insists it has no such plan, and in turn accuses Russian leader President Vladimir Putin of ramping up tensions to provoke an incident that could serve as a pretext to launch an invasion.

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