POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces have at times exposed civilians to Russian attacks by basing themselves in schools, apartment buildings and other locations in populated areas, according to an Amnesty International report released Thursday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy angrily denounced the report, saying Amnesty International “is trying to amnesty the terrorist state and shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim”.
“If you provide manipulative reports,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address, “then you share responsibility with them for people’s deaths.”
AP journalists have observed several scenes in recent weeks that mirror Amnesty researchers’ findings, including the aftermath of weapon strikes in eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian fighters, their vehicles or objects such as munitions were at attack sites.
In two locations, the AP learned that a soldier or soldiers had been killed. In a third case, emergency workers prevented journalists from filming the victims of a Russian strike against a residential building, which was unusual; locals said military personnel were staying there.
In a report on Thursday, Amnesty International said its researchers, between April and July, “found evidence that Ukrainian forces launched strikes from populated residential areas, as well as based in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages” in three regions.
Amnesty also said it found that Ukrainian forces were using hospitals as military bases in five locations, in “clear violation of international humanitarian law”. The report notes that parties to a conflict should “avoid placing military objectives in or near densely populated areas whenever possible”.
Combatants must also keep civilians away from the “neighborhood of military objectives” and warn of possible attacks, according to the report, adding that “viable alternatives were available that would not endanger civilians, such as military bases or areas densely forested nearby, or other structures further away”. away from residential areas.
At the same time, its authors pointed out that “the Ukrainian army’s practice of locating military objectives in populated areas in no way justifies indiscriminate Russian attacks.”
Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly asked the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to evacuate, but starting over elsewhere is not so easy. Tens of thousands of people who have left their homes since the Russian invasion have returned after feeling unsupported or unwelcome.
The AP reported last week that an evacuee was killed in a missile strike two days after returning home to the Donetsk town of Pokrovsk. Neighbors have expressed anger that Ukrainian fighters have established a base in their residential area on the outskirts of town. As AP reporters watched the missile crater, a uniformed fighter emerged from adjacent terrain and questioned their presence.
In the town of Kramatorsk, closer to the frontline, residents told the AP after a strike in a residential area that soldiers were staying there. The AP saw soldiers moving in and out of a building in Kramatorsk hit by another strike.
And in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the AP saw soldiers and military vehicles at a teaching university that was hit. Troops and supplies were also present at a school for the disabled where a Russian strike left two craters in the schoolyard.
In addition to testimonies, Amnesty International relied on satellite imagery and remote sensing. Its researchers heard gunfire from nearby Ukrainian positions as they examined damaged residential areas in the Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Donbas regions. The Donbass region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, is where the heaviest fighting in the war has taken place since April.
The mother of a man killed in a rocket attack in a village near Mykolaiv told researchers that Ukrainian forces remained in a house next to theirs. Researchers found military uniforms and equipment there, according to the report.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba released a video statement denouncing the report as “unfair” and expressing his outrage over it.
“Such AI behavior is not about seeking the truth and letting the world know it, it is about creating a false balance between a criminal and a victim, between a country that is wiping out civilian populations by the hundreds and by the thousands, (destroyed) entire cities and regions, and a country desperately defending itself, saving its people and the continent from this invasion,” Kuleba said.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov also spoke with a Facebook post.
“Any attempt to equate, even in passing, unprovoked Russian aggression with Ukrainian self-defense, as done in the Amnesty International report, is evidence of a loss of adequacy and ‘a way to destroy his authority,’ Reznikov wrote.
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, in turn, accused the group on Twitter of participating in a “disinformation and propaganda campaign” by Moscow to discredit Ukraine’s armed forces.
Russian and pro-Kremlin media widely cited the report, whose findings somewhat match Moscow’s official narrative. Russia has justified attacks on civilian areas by alleging that Ukrainian fighters set up firing positions there.
“We talk about it all the time, calling the actions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces a tactic of using the civilian population as a ‘human shield,'” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Telegram.
Ukrainian soldiers have also regularly based themselves in schools, Amnesty said. Although Ukrainian schools have been closed since the Russian invasion, most are near residential areas. Researchers from the rights group found soldiers or evidence of military activity at 22 of the 29 schools visited.
“In at least three cities, after the Russian bombardment of schools, Ukrainian soldiers moved to other nearby schools, putting surrounding neighborhoods at risk of similar attacks,” the report said.
The extent of the problem is unknown. A Human Rights Watch report last month identified three occasions when Ukrainian forces were based in residences and four occasions when Russian forces established military bases in populated areas of Ukraine.
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