U.S. warns against Russian false claims being used as pretext for Ukraine invasion

The seal of the United States Department of State is shown in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - The United States warned on Wednesday that Russia could use false claims about the conflict in Ukraine's Donbass region, including reports of mass graves and allegations of chemical weapons production, to justify an invasion of the former Soviet republic.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Washington was yet to see signs Russia was de-escalating tensions on its border with Ukraine. Concern over a potential Russian invasion has not diminished and Russian forces were in fact moving into "fighting positions," he said, despite Moscow's assertion that it was moving some troops back to their bases. read more

Price said Russian officials and media had planted stories in the press that were "entirely untrue."

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"This (the stories being untrue) however has not stopped the Russians from advancing these false claims, to include reports of unmarked mass graves of civilians allegedly killed by Ukrainian armed forces, and statements that the United States or Ukraine are developing biological or chemical weapons... for use in the Russian-controlled territories," Price told reporters at a regular press briefing.

He did not provide details, but the State Department last month published a fact sheet rebutting what it called Russian "disinformation," linking to news stories that quoted Russian officials making similar statements.

Price said the United States was particularly concerned by Russian President Vladimir Putin saying, without evidence, that "genocide" was taking place in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region. read more

"These are false narratives that Russia is developing as a pretext for military actions against Ukraine," he said.

Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions - collectively known as the Donbass - broke away from Ukrainian government control in 2014 and proclaimed themselves independent, sparking a conflict with the Ukrainian army.

The United Nations has said more than 3,100 civilians have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since fighting began.

The Biden administration said earlier this month it had intelligence that Russia could use a fabricated video showing the graphic aftermath of an explosion as a pretext for invasion of Ukraine.

No video has yet emerged and officials have not provided evidence to back up their statement that Russia is preparing to fabricate a pretext for a conflict.

Other Western nations have said they agreed with the U.S. assessment that Russia is preparing to fabricate a pretext. A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was a "high degree of confidence" that any invasion would be preceded by some sort of incident designed to provide a pretext.

"They obviously have options that they have worked up on that and it would be foolish to predict the precise one," the diplomat said.

Russia has denied the accusations, says it has no plans to invade Ukraine, and has accused the West of hysteria.

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Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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