File photo of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. (Agence France-Presse)
More than 6,000 people have been killed since violence erupted in Ukraine last April, the UN rights chief said Monday, decrying a "merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure."
The UN's ninth report on the situation in violence-wracked Ukraine paints a bleak picture of developments in the country and warns there has been a "serious escalation" of the conflict since the beginning of the year.
"More than 6,000 lives have now been lost in less than a year due to the fighting in eastern Ukraine," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
He called on all sides to respect a fragile Minsk peace deal, and "halt the indiscriminate shelling and other hostilities that have created a dreadful situation for civilians."
Speaking in Geneva for the launch of the report, Ivan Simonovic, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said "the deliberate targeting of civilian areas may constitute a war crime and if widespread and systematic, a crime against humanity."
Their comments came amid a relative calm along the frontline in eastern Ukraine that has raised hopes the sides are moving towards implementing the shaky European-brokered ceasefire.
The report details how the conflict is affecting civilians, including arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances, committed mainly by armed groups but also in some cases by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.
It points to suspicions of summary, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, including Ukrainian soldiers found "with their hands tied with white electrical cable" at Donetsk airport after it was taken by armed groups in January.
Released just days after Ukrainian photographer Sergiy Nikolayev was killed, the report also voiced deep concern over attacks and pressures on journalists in the country.
The report found that 5,665 people were killed and 13,961 wounded from the beginning of the conflict through the middle of last month.
But Zeid's office said the escalation in fighting in recent weeks, especially near Donetsk airport and around Debaltseve had left hundreds of civilians and fighters dead, allowing the toll to soar past the 6,000-mark.
The security and human rights situation in the east of the country has "dramatically deteriorated" since the beginning of the year, and the escalating violence has created "an untenable situation for those trapped or held hostage in the areas controlled by armed groups," the statement said.
Heavy weaponry and foreign fighters, including from Russia, are continuing to flow into the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk, the report found, warning this was fuelling the conflict and "undermining the potential for peace."
The swelling violence and dire living conditions have forced more and more people to flee, and by mid-February, more than one million people had been registered as internally displaced inside Ukraine.
Pensioners hard hit
"All aspects of people's lives are being negatively affected," Zeid said.
"Many have been trapped in conflict zones, forced to shelter in basements, with hardly any drinking water, food, heating, electricity or basic medical supplies," he added.
A full 60 per cent of the internally displaced people were believed to be pensioners, who are among those hard-hit by a decision to halt salaries, pensions and social benefit payments to people living in areas controlled by armed groups, the report found.
At the very least, it said, 600,000 pensioners in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions have been left without regular income.
At the same time, the report said the Ukrainian authorities' assistance for internally displaced people "remained inadequate", with reception centres widely "overwhelmed, under-resourced and under-prepared" and often leaving inhabitants in urgent need of winter clothes, hygiene items, diapers and medicine.
The report also took issue with new travel restrictions imposed by the government in January.
"The assumption that those who remain in territory controlled by armed groups do so by choice is both worrying and misguided," Zeid said.