UN criticizes Ukraine fighting tactics; raises toll to 5,358

UN criticizes Ukraine fighting tactics; raises toll to 5,358
By PETER LEONARD
5 February 2015


A woman stands outside clinic 27, damaged after shelling, in Donetsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. (AP / Vadim Braydov)

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine (AP) -- Indiscriminate shelling and the escalation of fighting in eastern Ukraine have killed at least 224 civilians in the past three weeks alone, the United Nations said Tuesday as it raised the overall death toll to more than 5,350 people.

"Bus stops and public transport, marketplaces, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and residential areas have become battlegrounds ... in clear breach of international humanitarian law," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said, adding that another 545 civilians were wounded in the past three weeks. He urged both sides to make the protection of civilians an "utmost priority."

Hostilities between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops resumed with a vengeance in January after a month of relative calm. The latest peace talks broke down Saturday, with both sides blaming the other for prolonging the conflict that began in April.

Rebels in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk said Tuesday that artillery fire killed at least eight people and wounded 22 others in the past day, while Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said five servicemen had been killed and 27 wounded in the same time period.

The rebels' main offensive is now directed at Debaltseve, a railway junction that lies between the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Almost 2,000 residents have fled in the past few days alone. Separatists last week captured the town of Vuhlehirsk, which is crucial for the advance on Debaltseve. Rebel leaders insist, however, they are not planning to storm Debaltseve itself because of the potential for many civilian casualties.

Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying his fighters were helping to evacuate Vuhlehirsk because of the heavy fighting.

Ukraine accuses Russia of arming the rebels, a charge that Russia denies. But Western military experts say the sheer amount of heavy weapons in rebel hands belies that denial, and the U.S. and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

Source: AP