Cluster Bombs in Donetsk? Ukraine Accused of War Crime
October 22, 2014
Andrew Rothoct / The New York Times & Al Jazeera America
The Ukrainian Army appears to have fired cluster munitions on several occasions into the heart of Donetsk, unleashing a weapon banned in much of the world into a rebel-held city with a peacetime population of more than one million, according to physical evidence and interviews with witnesses and victims. In response, Ukraine's armed forces have denied allegations that they have indiscriminately used banned cluster bombs in the war against pro-Russian insurgents in the separatist east.
Ukraine Used Cluster Bombs, Evidence Indicates
Andrew Rothoct / The New York Times
DONETSK, Ukraine (October 20, 2014) -- The Ukrainian Army appears to have fired cluster munitions on several occasions into the heart of Donetsk, unleashing a weapon banned in much of the world into a rebel-held city with a peacetime population of more than one million, according to physical evidence and interviews with witnesses and victims.
Sites where rockets fell in the city on Oct. 2 and Oct. 5 showed clear signs that cluster munitions had been fired from the direction of army-held territory, where misfired artillery rockets still containing cluster bomblets were found by villagers in farm fields.
The two attacks wounded at least six people and killed a Swiss employee of the International Red Cross based in Donetsk.
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.
Further, in a report released late Monday, Human Rights Watch says the rebels have most likely used cluster weapons in the conflict as well, a detail that The New York Times1 could not independently verify.
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. The two October strikes occurred nearly a month after President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine signed a cease-fire agreement with rebel representatives.
"It's pretty clear that cluster munitions are being used indiscriminately in populated areas, particularly in attacks in early October in Donetsk city," said Mark Hiznay, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, in emailed comments after the report was completed. "The military logic behind these attacks is not apparent, and these attacks should stop, because they put too many civilians at risk."
Press officers for the Ukrainian military denied that their troops had used cluster weapons during the conflict and said that the rocket strikes against Donetsk in early October should be investigated once it was safe to do so. They also said that rebels in the area had access to powerful rocket systems from Russia that could fire cluster munitions.
However, munition fragments found in and around Donetsk and interviews with witnesses indicate that the cluster munitions that struck Oct. 2 and Oct. 5 were most likely fired by Ukrainian troops stationed southwest of the city, according to Human Rights Watch and a review by The Times. Witnesses there reported seeing rocket launches from those troops' positions toward the city at times that coincide with the strikes.
Human Rights Watch says in its report that cluster weapons have been used against population centers in eastern Ukraine at least 12 times, including the strikes on Donetsk, during the conflict, and possibly many more. The report said that both sides were probably culpable, in attacks that "may amount to war crimes" in a grinding conflict that has claimed at least 3,700 lives, including those of many civilians.
The report, which included incidents uncovered by The Times, says there is "particularly strong evidence" that Ukrainian government troops carried out the two October attacks against Donetsk.
An August cluster-munitions attack on the village of Starobesheve, which was in Ukrainian Army hands, was probably carried out either by pro-Russian rebels or by Russian troops, the report says.
Beginning in October, a series of strikes against Donetsk using certain cluster weapons fired from Uragan rockets came from the southwest of the city. The timing of at least two rocket launches from the same location corresponded to cluster munition strikes that hit Donetsk from a southwesterly trajectory, according to Human Rights Watch and The Times.
Shelling of cities has been common in the conflict, and the cease-fire agreement has not ended the violence. A chemical plant on the outskirts of Donetsk was struck Monday, and the resulting shock wave shattered windows for miles around.
On the morning of Oct. 5, Boris V. Melikhov, 37, was chopping wood outside his house in the Gladkovka neighborhood of Donetsk when he heard the loud clap of an explosion from the street.
His first sensation was "a strong push in the back," and he sprawled onto the grass. More explosions followed, showering Mr. Melikhov with dust and dirt. Unable to stand, he crawled toward a spigot in the garden, bleeding profusely and desperate for water.
"I felt the blood running down my back, down my leg," he recalled in an interview last week from his bed in a hospital, where his uncle took him after the attack. Doctors there found several identical metal fragments in his leg, chest, shoulder and hand.
Hundreds of such fragments, each about the size of a thumbtack, were sprayed out by at least 11 cluster bomblets that exploded on Mr. Melikhov's street that morning. The 9N210 bomblets are carried in surface-to-surface Uragan (Hurricane) rockets that are fired from the backs of trucks and have a range of roughly 22 miles.
Part of one of the rockets smashed into a street a few blocks away, and the impact crater indicated it had come from the southwest.
The same morning, sunflower farmers near Novomikhailovka, a small village about 20 miles southwest of Mr. Melikhov's house, saw rockets sailing almost directly overhead toward Donetsk. Local people said in interviews that the army had been launching Uragan rockets from there for more than a week.
"Trust me, when it is day after day after day, you get to know your Grad launches from your Uragan launches," said one farmer, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution for discussing Ukrainian military positions. Grads are another kind of rocket used by both sides.
Villagers said they had also seen rockets with cluster bomblets up close. They said several of the rockets misfired on Oct. 3 and landed in the sunflower fields south of the village with their payloads intact.
A reporter photographed three malfunctioned rockets there, and two of them contained submunitions like those that injured Mr. Melikhov. The same type of weapon struck the Donetsk headquarters of the Red Cross on Oct. 2 in an attack that killed an administrator, Laurent DuPasquier, 38.
Uragan rockets can carry 30 of the submunitions, which look like metal cans with fins. Those bomblets in turn hold small pieces of chopped steel rod. The rocket releases the bomblets over a wide area, and the bomblets either explode on impact, flinging out lethal steel fragments, or land unexploded and effectively become land mines. Children often mistake them for toys.
At the Red Cross headquarters in Donetsk, Human Rights Watch researchers accompanied by a Times reporter documented 19 distinct impacts of cluster submunitions from the Oct. 2 attack. Judging by impact craters from rockets fired in the same salvo, the researchers said, the strike came from the southwest.
A witness to the Oct. 2 launch in Novomikhailovka told the reporter about the malfunctioning rockets in the fields. Other witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch on the evening of Oct. 2 confirmed that rockets had been fired from just south of the village toward Donetsk.
An advocacy group called the Cluster Munitions Coalition has been pressing Ukraine to join the international convention banning the stockpiling or use of the weapons. (Russia and the United States have not joined it, either.) The group's director, Sarah Blakemore, wrote to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in July after images were published appearing to show the use of cluster munitions against rebel positions in the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.
She said in a telephone interview that she had received no reply. "When I say they neither confirmed or denied, I mean they really just did not do anything," Ms. Blakemore said.
More than a month after heavy fighting in the village of Ilovaysk, rebel soldiers continued going door to door last week, searching for unexploded shells and bomblets. At Tatyana Lashunova's house, they found a Smerch (Tornado) rocket lodged in the shed where she keeps her preserves and gardening tools. It was not clear which side had fired the rocket, which can carry conventional warheads or cluster munitions.
Valery, one of the rebels, said his men would fan out and search a nearby field of tall, yellow grass where bomblets from the rocket probably landed.
"We haven't got a mine detector or any other equipment," he said. "They've promised something soon, but I don't know whether to expect it."
In Donetsk, doctors in a city hospital and morgue said they had found cluster-munitions fragments in several patients, including Mr. Melikhov, whose spine was nicked by one on Oct. 5. He was lucky not to have been paralyzed, but the injury made it very painful to sit, stand or lie flat, he said.
"I see it as the senseless destruction of the southeast," he said of the attack. "There's something wrong in their head."
A version of this article appears in print on October 21, 2014, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Ukrainian Forces Used Cluster Bombs, Evidence Indicates.
Ukraine Military Denies Using
Banned Cluster Bombs against Rebels
Al Jazeera America
(October 21, 2014) -- Ukraine's armed forces on Tuesday rejected allegations that they have indiscriminately used banned cluster bombs in the war against pro-Russian insurgents in the separatist east.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) published the results of a detailed investigation late Monday identifying 12 incidents in which the munitions, prohibited under international law, killed six people -- including a Swiss aid worker -- in and around the rebel-held city of Donetsk earlier this month.
The global rights group said there appeared to be "widespread" use of cluster bombs, which are highly inaccurate because they spray across a large area. They also often fail to explode, thereby posing a danger to civilians in the future.
The report came as violence continues to rumble in eastern Ukraine, in violation of a cease-fire agreement struck in September between officials in Kiev and the Moscow-backed rebels. Though the intensity of fighting has abated since last month, daily shelling continues, with a powerful explosion shaking Donetsk on Monday.
The same day, Ukraine's parliament said in a report that more than 300 Ukrainian soldiers were killed during a weeks-long battle in the city of Iloviask, which remains under rebel control.
The violence spurred German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say on Monday, "There's a long way to a cease-fire, unfortunately," given the number of people who have been killed since the deal was struck. Merkel and other Western leaders are pushing for both sides to uphold the cease-fire and for local elections to be held in eastern Ukraine under the auspices of Ukraine's constitution.
Russia, which has denied providing material support for the rebels despite NATO and Western claims to the contrary, backs the pro-Russian rebels' push for greater autonomy in the largely Russian-speaking regions of the east. Moscow has come under fire and biting sanctions for its meddling in Ukraine, which Kiev and its Western allies say includes providing considerable arms for the insurgency.
But the HRW report supported Russian claims that Ukraine's pro-Western government has violated human rights and killed innocent civilians through indiscriminate use of force. HRW urged Ukrainian forces to "immediately make a commitment not to use cluster munitions" and for the government to "accede to the treaty banning their use."
The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions has been signed by 113 countries, but Ukraine is not a signatory (nor is the United States). "It is shocking to see a weapon that most countries have banned used so extensively in eastern Ukraine," said HRW researcher Mark Hiznay.
Cluster munitions contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller explosives. HRW noted that these smaller explosives "are spread indiscriminately over a wide area, often the size of a football field, putting anyone in the area at the time of attack, whether combatants or civilians, at risk of death or injury."
Two top Ukrainian military officials denied using such weapons when contacted by Agence France-Presse, with one, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Bogdan Senyk, calling the allegations "groundless."
Vladyslav Seleznyov, Ukraine's eastern campaign spokesman, also dismissed HRW's evidence showing that the military shelled civilian neighborhoods in Donetsk -- home to nearly a million people before the war.
"Human Rights Watch knows that these are banned weapons, and we do not use banned weapons," he said. "Neither do we shell civilian neighborhoods, because this endangers lives. But our opponents constantly attack these neighborhoods," he added.
Reporters across Ukraine's east have witnessed repeated shelling of city districts, contributing to a total death toll from the fighting of about 3,700, according to UN estimates.
But it has usually been impossible to say with any certainty whether these shells and rockets are fired by the Moscow-backed insurgents or Ukrainian forces. Most attacks are conducted from a distance of a few dozen miles, and the sides typically trade accusations of responsibility.
HRW said that "while not conclusive, circumstances indicate that anti-government forces might have [also] been responsible for the use of cluster munitions."
The report was released the same day Amnesty International, another rights group, said the scale of killings and reports of mass graves was "hugely exaggerated." However, Amnesty did say there was evidence both sides carried out extrajudicial killings.
Al Jazeera and wire services
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