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Ukrainian forces have exposed civilians to Russian attacks at times by basing themselves in schools, residential buildings and other places in populated areas, according to a report Amnesty International published Thursday.
Ukrainian officials denounced the report from the human rights group as “unfair” and part of a “disinformation and propaganda campaign.”
AP journalists observed several scenes in recent weeks that mirrored the findings of Amnesty’s researchers, including the aftermath of weapon strikes in eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian fighters, their vehicles or items such as ammunition were at attack sites.
At two locations, the AP was told a soldier or soldiers had been killed. At a third, emergency workers blocked media from filming victims of a Russian strike on a residential building, which was unusual; locals said military personnel had been staying there.
In a report released Thursday, Amnesty International said its researchers between April and July “found evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within populated residential areas, as well as basing themselves in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages” in three regions of the country.
Amnesty also said it found Ukrainian forces using hospitals as military bases in five places, which the human rights group called “a clear violation of international humanitarian law.” The report noted that “international humanitarian law requires the parties to a conflict to avoid locating, to the maximum extent feasible, military objectives within or near densely populated areas.”
Combatants also must remove civilians from the “vicinity of military objectives” and provide warnings about possible attacks, the report said, adding that “viable alternatives were available that would not endanger civilians such as military bases or densely wooded area nearby, or other structures further away from residential areas.”
At the same time, the report’s authors stressed that the “Ukrainian military’s practice of locating military objectives within populated areas does not in any way justify indiscriminate Russian attacks.”
Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly asked the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to evacuate, but starting anew elsewhere is not that easy. Tens of thousands of people who left their homes since Russia’s invasion have returned after running out of support or feeling unwelcome.
The AP reported last week that one evacuee was killed in a missile strike two days after returning home to the city of Pokrovsk in Donetsk. Neighbors expressed anger that Ukrainian fighters had set up base in their residential area on the city’s outskirts. As AP journalists looked at the missile crater, a uniformed fighter walked over from the adjacent plot of land and questioned their presence.
In the city of Kramatorsk, closer to the front line, residents told the AP after a strike in a residential area that soldiers had been staying there. The AP saw soldiers entering and leaving a Kramatorsk apartment building hit by a separate strike.
And in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the AP saw soldiers and military vehicles at a teaching university that was hit. Soldiers and supplies also were present at a school for the disabled where a Russian strike left two craters in the schoolyard.
Aside from witness accounts, Amnesty International relied on satellite imagery and remote sensing. Its researchers heard outgoing fire from nearby Ukrainian positions while examining damaged residential areas in the regions of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Donbas. The Donbas region, which consists of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, is where the war’s most intense fighting 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 had stayed in a house next to theirs. The researchers found military uniforms and equipment there, according to the report.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has not responded to the findings, the rights group said. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry initially declined to comment to the AP on the Amnesty report, but Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba later Thursday released a video statement denouncing the report as “unfair” and expressing his outrage about it.
“Such behavior by AI is not about seeking the truth and bringing it to the world, it is about creating a false balance between a criminal and a victim, between a country that is annihilating civilian populations by the hundreds and the thousands, (is destroying) cities and entire areas, and a country that is desperately defending itself, saving its people and the continent from this invasion,” Kuleba said.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov also weighed in with a Facebook post.
“Any attempts to even in passing equate the unprovoked Russian aggression and Ukraine’s self-defense, like it is done in the Amnesty International report, is evidence of losing adequacy and a way to destroy one’s authority,” Reznikov wrote.
Presidential advisor 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 state and pro-Kremlin media have extensively quoted the report, whose findings somewhat align with Moscow’s official narrative. Russia has justified attacks on civilian areas by alleging that Ukrainian fighters are setting up firing positions there.
“We’re talking about it all the time, calling the actions of Ukraine’s armed forces the tactics of using the civilian population as a ‘human shield,’” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Telegram of the report.
Ukrainian soldiers also have routinely based themselves in schools, Amnesty said. Even though Ukraine’s schools have been closed since Russia’s invasion, most are close to residential neighborhoods. The rights group’s researchers found soldiers or evidence of military activity at 22 out of 29 schools visited.
“In at least three towns, after Russian bombardment of the schools, Ukrainian soldiers moved to other schools nearby, putting the surrounding neighborhoods at risk of similar attacks,” the report said.
The full scope of the issue is unknown. A separate report last month by Human Rights Watch identified three occasions when Ukrainian forces were based among residential homes and four occasions when Russian forces set up military bases in populated areas of Ukraine.