GENEVA - The United Nations says the number of people killed in eastern Ukraine since fighting broke out in April now tops 6,000. A new report by the U.N. Human Rights Office says fighting between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian government and the ensuing death toll continue to escalate in spite of successive cease-fires.
U.N. human rights monitors say the escalation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine is having devastating consequences for local populations caught in the crossfire. They say the greater use of heavy and sophisticated weaponry is leading to increased violations of international human rights and international humanitarian laws.
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said all sides are using weapons such as multiple launch rocket systems, which killed 31 people, including two children, during an assault on the important port city of Mariupol on January 24 by pro-Russian rebel forces.
He cites credible reports that heavy weaponry and foreign fighters continue to flow from Russia into areas of rebel-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“In the east, up until the cease-fire of 15 February, there was continued indiscriminate shelling of highly populated civilian areas, both Government-controlled and those controlled by armed groups, with an escalating toll on civilians," said Simonovic. "The deliberate targeting of civilian areas may constitute a war crime, and if widespread and systematic, crime against humanity.”
The report documents heavy damage to civilian property and vital infrastructure, noting more than 400,000 people have been left without power, heating, water and food in some areas of conflict for more than a month.
It says there is credible evidence of allegations of arbitrary detention of civilians, torture and enforced disappearances, committed mostly by the armed groups, but also by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.
The report says many civilians remain trapped in conflict zones. It refutes claims that all those who remain in territory controlled by armed groups do so voluntarily. It says many people stay because they are afraid or want to protect their families. Some, it says, simply are not physically able to leave and are forced to stay.
Simonovic said the conflict in eastern Ukraine is having a terrible impact on the rest of the country, with living standards declining and shortages of gas and heating possible. He noted that more than 1 million people have fled the conflict and are internally displaced.
He said fears are growing of a renewed military campaign on Mariupol. He said this would result in multiple and serious consequences. He told VOA that when he last visited the city, tensions were visible. He said there was indiscriminate shelling, which resulted in dozens of deaths.
“The concern about Mariupol is that in case of military campaign against Mariupol, there would be very high level of casualties because Mariupol is heavily defended. Besides that I do think coming from New York, that in case of military campaign of Mariupol, there would be a very strong international reaction,” said Simonovic.
The report notes the situation in Crimea is deteriorating rapidly, with systematic human rights violations affecting mostly Crimean Tartars, and those who opposed the March referendum granting autonomy of the peninsula to Russia.