MH17 only adds to grim toll on civilians in eastern Ukraine

The downing of MH17 refocused the world's attention on the conflict in Ukraine, where rebel commanders are centralizing control according to a new UN report. 

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
Self-proclamed Donetsk People's Republic policemen watch refugees fleeing Shakhtarsk, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine on Monday, July 28, 2014.

A new United Nations report describes a “breakdown of law and order” and "egregious human rights abuses" in eastern Ukraine that date even before the conflict captured world attention over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Conservative figures from the UN and the World Health Organization as of July 26 estimate at least 1,129 people have been killed and 3,442 have been wounded as fighting between the Ukrainian military and rebels, many of whom are not Ukrainian, continues to rage. 

The report notes that exact casualty figures are difficult to ascertain under current conditions. As of July 15, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council reported 258 military causalities with 992 personnel wounded. 

The report found “egregious human rights abuses have been committed in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine,” including abductions, extortion, torture, and executions while the areas have been under control of pro-Russian fighters. People detained and abducted have included politicians, teachers, journalists, clergy members, and students.

“The reports of increasingly intense fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, are extremely alarming, with both sides employing heavy weaponry in built-up areas, including artillery, tanks, rockets and missiles,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said. “Both sides must take great care to prevent more civilians from being killed or injured.”

“Deliberate targeting by armed groups” of public utilities, including water and electricity, has crippled the area while properties have been looted, banks robbed, and medical facilities have been forced to close. Over 100,000 Ukrainians have fled the areas affected by fighting. The Ukrainian government is currently estimating over $650 million will be needed for rebuilding and revitalizing the areas hit by fighting.

To cover the cost, the Ukrainian government said it would make cuts to social programs and other areas that would affect the entire country.

When speaking about the UN report, which covers the period of June 8 to July 15, 2014, Ms. Pillay said the downing of MH17 on July 17 “may amount to a war crime.” She did not place blame on any party directly.

The report refers to "armed groups," an apparent allusion to the unclear origin of many people supporting the Dontesk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic, the two main separatist umbrella groups in the conflict.

Findings also suggest that the rebels are “now being brought together under the central command” of a largely Russian-national leadership. The “openly acknowledged and self-evident” change in the fighters’ abilities, which includes use of heavy weaponry, shows a dramatic shift from the somewhat “rag tag” group of fighters at the outbreak of the conflict.

The Ukrainian military has continued pushing its "anti-terrorist" operation in eastern Ukraine, today reporting they had captured Savur-Mohyla, a city in the Donetsk region.

The heavy fighting in the area today also again prevented Australian and Dutch investigators from reaching the crash site of MH17.

Heavy shelling in recent weeks has been responsible for many civilian deaths and broad collateral damage, with the report placing blame on both sides.

The armed groups are locating their military assets in and conducting attacks from densely populated areas thereby putting the whole civilian population at risk. Locating military objectives within or near a densely populated area, and launching attacks from such areas may constitute a violation of international humanitarian law.

On Sunday, the US released satellite images which it says supports the claims that Russia has fired rockets from its side of the border into Ukraine and that weaponry has crossed the border from Russia into Ukraine.

The memo released by the State Department said one image gives evidence that Russian troops “fired across the border at Ukrainian military forces and that Russian-backed separatists have used heavy artillery provided by Russia in attacks on Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine.”

The Russian Defense Ministry denied the US claims, calling the images "fake."

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