Ukrainian militia and separatist forces are responsible for war crimes, Amnesty International said today. The organisation accused Russia of fuelling separatist crimes as it revealed satellite images indicating a build-up of Russian armour and artillery in eastern Ukraine.
Despite a fragile cease-fire, the situation on the ground remains fraught with danger and Amnesty International calls on all parties, including Russia, to stop violations of the laws of war.
“All sides in this conflict have shown disregard for civilian lives and are blatantly violating their international obligations,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, who travels to Kyiv and Moscow in the coming days.
“Our evidence shows that Russia is fuelling the conflict, both through direct interference and by supporting the separatists in the East. Russia must stop the steady flow of weapons and other support to an insurgent force heavily implicated in gross human rights violations.”
Amnesty International researchers on the ground in eastern Ukraine have documented incidents of indiscriminate shelling, abductions, torture, and killings.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any involvement in the fighting in Ukraine, but satellite imagery and testimony gathered by the organization provide compelling evidence that the fighting has burgeoned into what Amnesty International now considers an international armed conflict.
The images show new artillery positions being established just inside the Ukrainian border between 13 and 29 August, including what appear to be 122-mm Howitzer D-30 artillery units in firing positions pointed toward the west. Two of the positions have a support vehicle and what looks like bunkers. On 29 August, six armoured amphibious vehicles (likely BRDM-2s) can be seen.
Another similar artillery position can be seen in a field northeast of the first, also within Ukrainian territory. Imagery from 26 August 2014 shows six relatively advanced self-propelled howitzers (likely 2S19 Msta-S 152-mm) in firing positions facing southwest at Ukrainian army locations.
Between 26 and 29 August 2014 the artillery has been moved into a west facing firing position still within Ukraine. On August 29 the imagery shows what look like numerous military vehicles in the area along the tree line and in the neighboring field.
“These satellite images, coupled with reports of Russian troops captured inside Ukraine and eyewitness accounts of Russian troops and military vehicles rolling across the border, leave no doubt that this is now an international armed conflict,” said Shetty.
Amnesty International researchers on the ground in eastern Ukraine interviewed eyewitnesses fleeing from fighting near Alechevsk, Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Krasny Luch, Lisichansk, Lugansk, Rubeznoe, Pervomaisk and Slovyansk. Researchers also interviewed Ukrainian refugees in the Rostov region of Russia.
Civilians from these areas told Amnesty International that the Ukrainian government forces subjected their neighbourhoods to heavy shelling. Their testimonies suggest that the attacks were indiscriminate and may amount to war crimes. Witnesses also said that separatist fighters abducted, tortured, and killed their neighbours.
In an illustrative incident, residents of Slovyansk told Amnesty International that separatist fighters kidnapped a local pastor, two of his sons and two churchgoers, and requested a US$50,000 ransom for their release. By the time the local community managed to collect the requested ransom, the witnesses said, the captors had killed all of the men.
Amnesty International has also received credible reports of abductions and beatings carried out by volunteer battalions operating alongside regular Ukrainian armed forces.
For example, on 23 August a security guard in Oleksandrivka, Luhansk region was seized by several dozen armed men who arrived in vehicles flying Ukrainian flags. At least one was marked “Battalion Aidar” (a militia group operating in the Luhansk region). Witnesses said his captors accused him of collaborating with separatists, beat him with rifle butts and held him incommunicado until 27 August, when his family were informed he was being held in another town, in the local office of Ukraine’s state security service.
Amnesty International is calling on the Ukrainian authorities to conduct an effective investigation into allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law and bring to justice individuals responsible for war crimes. Commanders and civilian leaders may also be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility if they knew or should have known about the crimes and failed to prevent them or punish those responsible.
“Civilians in Ukraine deserve protection and justice,” Salil Shetty said.
“Without a thorough and independent investigation, there’s a real risk Ukrainians will harbour the scars of this war for generations.”