An escalation in hostilities in eastern Ukraine since yesterday has resulted in the deaths of numerous civilians, including children, with many more lives in grave danger, Amnesty International said as it renewed its calls on both sides to protect civilians amid the fighting.
“The use of heavily populated areas for launching attacks by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Horlivka and the return of fire into these areas by pro-Kyiv forces is putting civilian lives in great danger,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“Pro-Russian separatist forces must stop using densely populated areas for launching military operations and Kyiv-controlled forces must not launch indiscriminate attacks which put civilian lives at risk. These are violations of the laws of war for which civilians are paying with their lives.”
On 18 January, Ukrainian armed forces received orders to open heavy fire on pro-Russian separatist positions in eastern Ukraine in a push to retake full control of the contested Donetsk airport and surrounding areas. This followed an earlier ultimatum issued to them by the pro-Russian forces to leave the airport and their subsequent full-scale offensive against the Ukrainian forces’ positions there.
Videos posted on the internet by users in Donetsk show separatist forces launching volleys from “Grad” multiple launch rocket systems based inside residential areas in the city on the morning of 18 January.
Residents in pro-Russian separatist controlled Horlivka, 40 km north-east of Donetsk, told Amnesty International of similar cases of rockets being fired from the town centre. Shortly after one such instance on 18 January, artillery fire was returned by pro-Kyiv forces, killing at least two civilians.
According to a high-ranking local official, two brothers, aged seven and 16, were killed on 18 January after their house was hit directly in Vuhlehirsk, a town some 60 km north-east of Donetsk which is controlled by pro-Kyiv forces. A girl, aged eight, was wounded in the same attack and her leg was later amputated in the hospital.
Three people, including a father and his teenage son, died this morning (19 January) in Ukrainian-controlled Debaltseve, a key rail hub, after shelling by pro-Russian separatist forces. A total of 10 people were injured in the attack.
The escalation in fighting follows an artillery strike on a bus that killed 12 civilians and wounded 16 near Volnovakha on 13 January.
“The tragic artillery strike in Volnovakha serves as a grisly reminder of the price paid by the civilian population when the rules of international humanitarian law are disregarded during military operations. While the available evidence strongly suggests that the separatists fired the rocket which killed the bus passengers in Volnovakha, neither side is always doing what is required to protect civilians, which time and again leads to their deaths,” said Denis Krivosheev.
The use of populated areas for staging military operations and the use of imprecise explosive weapons in civilian neighbourhoods repeats a pattern seen by Amnesty International during research missions to eastern Ukraine in September, October and December 2014.
Amnesty International reiterates its call to urgently investigate all incidents involving civilian deaths as they could amount to violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). IHL prohibits attacks that target civilians and civilian structures, as well as attacks in civilian areas that cannot be directed at a specific military objective. Both sides in the conflict have violated the prohibition by relying on unguided mortars and rockets that cannot be aimed with any precision in highly populated civilian areas.
By basing troops, weaponry and other military targets in residential areas, separatists and Ukrainian government forces have failed to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, endangering civilians in violation of the laws of war.
A nominal ceasefire was agreed in eastern Ukraine in September 2014, but upwards of 1,400 people, including many civilians, have been killed since then as both sides increasingly engage in tit-for-tat reprisals. In all, almost 5,000 people have died since the conflict broke out last year.