331 Have Died Since Ukraine Signed Truce, U.N. Reports

GENEVA, Switzerland -- Hundreds of people have died in fighting in eastern Ukraine since a cease-fire was agreed to by the government and armed separatists last month, the United Nations reported Wednesday, saying it had also received reports of mass graves containing hundreds of bodies.

Cemetery workers in Lebedinskoye, Ukraine, setting up crosses over the graves of a 6-year-old girl and her 10-year-old brother, who died in shelling.

At least 331 people were reported killed in the month after the cease-fire was announced on Sept. 5, the United Nations’ human rights office in Geneva said, adding that exchanges of artillery, tank and light arms fire had continued on an almost daily basis in some areas of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The latest toll brought the number of people reported killed in the past six months to at least 3,660, including combatants and civilians, with more than 8,756 injured, Gianni Magazzeni, a senior United Nations human rights official, told reporters in Geneva.

He released a 37-page report that indicated the numbers were conservative.

Most civilians deaths had been caused by indiscriminate shelling of residential areas by both pro-Russian separatists and by the Ukrainian armed forces, the report said.

Armed separatist groups in eastern Ukraine had reported the existence of mass graves containing up to 400 bodies in late September, but United Nations monitors had not received any evidence and they had been unable to investigate the allegations as they had not gained access to the area because of a lack of security, Mr. Magazzeni said. 

The alleged mass graves, which separatists said were in Donetsk and at other locations, appeared to be in areas where control had changed hands several times, he said, urging rebels controlling the area to preserve the sites to allow proper investigation.

Ukrainian authorities had also reported mass graves in the area of Slovyansk, but the United Nations team, which includes 20 investigators, had not yet been able to follow up on the report, he added.

Although the rate of casualties has declined since the September cease-fire, United Nations monitors reported that armed separatists “continued to terrorize the population” in the areas they controlled with killings, torture, abductions for ransom and prisoner exchanges. 

“There is a total breakdown of law and order,” Mr. Magazzeni said. 

The agency said Lithuania’s honorary consul in Luhansk had been abducted and killed on Aug. 22, in a case that monitors were still investigating.

Ukraine’s security service said it had detained a confessed member of a separatist firing squad in Donetsk that locals said had executed at least five people.

The United Nations also voiced concern at the activities of Ukrainian so-called volunteer battalions that are said to have arbitrarily detained, tortured and kidnapped people, seizing some for ransom and extorting large sums from businessmen at checkpoints.

It also expressed concern regarding the fate of at least 1,000 people detained by Ukrainian security forces on suspicion of being “militants and subversives.”

Conditions for civilians living in conflict areas remain “precarious,” and the number of people driven from their homes by the conflict but still inside Ukraine has risen to more than 275,000, the United Nations reported.

The United Nations refugee agency estimates the conflict has displaced more than a million Ukrainians, including more than 800,000 people who Russian authorities say have crossed the border this year.

Source: The New York Times