Eastern Ukraine: Deadly attack on Donetsk trolleybus as ceasefire unravels

A mortar strike on a trolleybus that killed at least eight and possibly as many as 15 civilians in pro-Russian separatist controlled Donetsk this morning is likely to be a violation of international humanitarian law and must be investigated promptly and impartially, Amnesty International said. 

“This appalling loss of civilian life is another reminder of the deadly consequences of ignoring the rules of international humanitarian law. A thorough, impartial and independent investigation into this possible violation of the laws of war is needed immediately,” said Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International. 

“Mortars should not be used in densely populated civilian areas. All sides in this conflict are well aware of the price being paid in civilian lives as a result of such imprecise explosive weapons being used in cities. This attack shows callous disregard for civilian lives and the laws of war.” 

The de facto authorities in Donetsk claimed that pro-Kyiv forces used an improvised mobile mortar launcher within the city for the strike, but Kyiv denied responsibility for the incident. The missile hit a trolleybus with passengers on Kuprina Street in the city’s Leninsky district, causing visible damage to surrounding buildings. 

Videos and photographs posted on social media in the aftermath showed the trolleybus with its windows blown out and the bodies of seven people inside, including elderly men and women. A burnt-out car and buildings with windows missing can be seen in the immediate vicinity. The driver of a passing tram was also injured, as well as a man in another vehicle nearby. Blood and shrapnel marks can be seen staining the vehicle and the asphalt around it.

A former Soviet military base, which according to local sources is being used by the pro-Russian separatist forces, is located approximately 500m from the site of the attack and might have been the intended target. Ukrainian official sources have denied responsibility and blamed the separatists for the attack. 

The mortar strike came at 8:30 am, just hours after the pro-Kyiv forces conceded that separatists had seized control of the embattled Donetsk International Airport. 

Sources in Donetsk told Amnesty International that the attack happened as people were going about their daily business, and the previous night had been calmer than the days before. 

The incident follows a sharp increase in the number of civilian deaths amid an escalation in fighting in recent days. This includes the deadly attack on a passenger bus in Volnovakha on 13 January that killed 12 and injured 16 civilians. 

By basing troops, weaponry and other military targets in residential areas, using them as firing positions and firing artillery, rockets and mortars into these locations, pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces are endangering civilians in violation of the laws of war. 

“Both sides are failing to take necessary precautions, prescribed by international humanitarian law, to spare civilians. As the fighting escalates and the ceasefire agreed in September 2014 breaks down, respect for the laws of war, and accountability for those who violate them, is more important than ever. Civilians will continue to be unlawfully killed and injured in ever greater numbers if impunity continues unchecked,” said Denis Krivosheev. 

Amnesty International has received worrying reports of more than a dozen pro-Kyiv fighters who have been taken prisoner being paraded before locals at the site of this morning’s attack. Media have released video of at least one being beaten. Mistreatment of prisoners constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law. 

Hundreds of people have been killed since the ceasefire was announced in September 2014, and both sides increasingly engage in tit-for-tat reprisals. In all, around 5,000 people have died since the conflict broke out last year.