With the announcement of a ceasefire deal in Minsk today, both sides to the conflict in eastern Ukraine must take immediate steps to protect civilians in the days before it comes into force, Amnesty International urged.
Both Ukrainian government forces and separatist militias must stop launching indiscriminate attacks that kill civilians, and must allow civilians to flee contested areas safely.
Because the ceasefire does not enter into effect until Saturday night at midnight, the risk of civilian casualties in continued hostilities is extremely high. Civilians trapped in affected areas like the Debaltseve pocket are at particular risk, as both sides try to gain territory before the fighting is halted.
“Given the intensity of the current fighting in Debaltseve, and the likely desire to escalate hostilities to gain ground before the ceasefire begins, we fear for the safety of the civilian population,” said Joanne Mariner, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International, who has just returned from Debaltseve.
An unknown number of civilians remain trapped in Debaltseve, a Ukrainian-held area that is currently under heavy attack by pro-Russian militias.
“When we visited Debaltseve last week we found devastation and suffering,” said Joanne Mariner. “Although many civilians have been evacuated, there were still a few thousand who remained, including children, pensioners and people with disabilities.”
An Amnesty International fact-finding mission over the past two weeks found civilians in Debaltseve huddled in crowded basement shelters, fearful of almost non-stop shelling and rocket attacks. Lacking electricity, running water, and other basic necessities, people in Debaltseve are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. Amnesty International said that both sides to the conflict in eastern Ukraine had violated the laws of war by carrying out indiscriminate attacks that killed civilians. The intensity of the violence, and frequency of civilian deaths, had worsened with the recent escalation of hostilities.
“Scores of civilians have been killed in recent weeks, since the escalation in hostilities began, as both sides continue to employ indiscriminate weapons that should never be used to bombard heavily populated areas,” said Joanne Mariner.
Sixteen civilians were killed in a rocket attack on the Kyiv-held city of Kramatorsk on Tuesday, and at least five more were killed in rocket attacks on the separatist-held city of Donetsk on Wednesday.
Amnesty International renewed its call for both sides to protect civilians amid the fighting.