Ukraine's army accused of using cluster munitions in urban areas

A fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine hasn't ended the fighting. Human Rights Watch says Ukraine's army has fired cluster bombs into populated areas and has called on Kiev to sign an international treaty banning their use.

Evgeniy Maloletka/AP
Smoke rises after shelling in the city of Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday. Daily battles continue in the region despite a nominal cease-fire being in place between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels.

Human Rights Watch says it has evidence that Ukrainian government forces fighting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have indiscriminately used cluster munitions, a weapon banned in much of the world.

The New York-based watchdog group released its findings in a report late Monday. The report details the suspected use of cluster munitions earlier this month in Donetsk, a rebel-held city with a peacetime population of more than one million. Cluster bombs are designed to explode before impact and scatter tiny explosives over a large area. 

"It is shocking to see a weapon that most countries have banned used so extensively in eastern Ukraine," Mark Hiznay, senior arms researcher at HRW, said in a statement. "Ukrainian authorities should make an immediate commitment not to use cluster munitions and join the treaty to ban them."

The watchdog group said it found signs of cluster munitions attacks in more than 12 locations in eastern Ukraine, where more than 3,700 people have been killed in fighting since April. It said the attacks had killed at least six people and wounded dozens, but that the toll could be higher.

While it could not conclusively account for each attack, HRW said in its report that "there is particularly strong evidence that Ukrainian government forces were responsible" and that their use of the munitions "may amount to war crimes." HRW said rebels may have used the munitions, too. 

A New York Times investigation also found physical evidence — supported by interviews with witnesses and victims — of cluster munitions fired by Ukrainian forces into Donetsk. Two attacks on Oct. 2 and Oct. 6 wounded at least six people and killed a Swiss employee of the International Red Cross, the Times reports.

The allegations could undermine the fragile cease-fire signed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and pro-Russian rebels in September. It could also jeopardize long-term peace negotiations in the area. As the Times reports:

If confirmed, the use of cluster bombs by the pro-Western government could complicate efforts to reunite the country, as residents of the east have grown increasingly bitter over the Ukrainian Army's tactics to oust pro-Russian rebels ...

The army's use of cluster munitions, which shower small bomblets around a large area, could also add credibility to Moscow's version of the conflict, which is that the Ukrainian national government is engaged in a punitive war against its own citizens. 

Ukrainian military officials have denied the accusations to reporters, while rebels have not commented.

HRW reports that 114 countries have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty that bans the stockpile or use of the weapons. In addition to Ukraine, Russia and the US are among those that have not joined it, the BBC reports.

Meanwhile, a new report from Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) found that pro-Russian rebels were responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July. The crash killed 298 people. 

BND President Gerhard Schindler told a parliamentary committee earlier this month that his agency had "ample" evidence to implicate the rebels , Der Spiegel reports. He refuted Russian claims that Ukrainian soldiers shot down the plane with a missile.

However, the German investigation concluded that the missile launcher used to down the plane was Ukrainian, not Russia. It said rebels had captured the launcher from a Ukrainian base. 

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