UN rights office says death toll in eastern Ukraine passes 6,000

The U.N. also said the flows of weaponry appear to be coming from Russia, even as the country continues to deny the accusations

BERLIN – The U.N. human rights office says more than 6,000 people have died in eastern Ukraine since the start of the conflict almost a year ago.

The Geneva-based body says hundreds of civilians and military personnel were killed in recent weeks alone after an upswing in fighting particularly near Donetsk airport and in the Debaltseve area.

U.N. rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said in a statement Monday that investigators from his office had found a “merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure” in the embattled region, where separatists backed by Russia are fighting Ukrainian government forces.

While Russia denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine, the U.N. said “credible reports indicate a continuing flow of heavy weaponry and foreign fighters” from Russia to the separatists in the period since December.

“This has sustained and enhanced the capacity of armed groups of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ to resist Government armed forces and to launch new offensives in some areas, including around the Donetsk airport, Mariupol and Debaltseve,” it said.

U.N. rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said many civilians stay in embattled areas “because they fear for their lives if they try to move.”

“Many others stay to protect children, other family members, or their property,” while some are forced to stay or unable to leave, he said.

The report cited “credible allegations of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances, committed mostly by the armed groups but in some instances also by the Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.” It noted video footage appeared to support allegations of summary executions by the rebels.

The displacement of 1 million people has also increased the risk for women from sex traffickers, the report found.

Zeid called on all sides to comply with a recent accord signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, that foresees the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line.

In Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting his Russian counterpart today for likely highly contentious talks amid continuing tensions over Ukraine and American calls for a full probe into the murder of a prominent opposition figure in Moscow.

Neither Kerry nor Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov smiled or spoke substantively as they shook hands before photographers at a Geneva hotel on Monday, less than a week after Kerry told Congress that Russian officials have lied to his face about Moscow’s role in Ukraine.

The comment drew a rebuke from the Russian foreign ministry. U.S. officials have pointed out that Kerry did not specifically accuse Lavrov of lying to him. They say he was referring to public statements and media reports although Lavrov is the only Russian official Kerry has been known to have met face-to-face in recent months. They last met on the sidelines of an international security conference in Munich shortly before a new Ukraine ceasefire agreement was agreed upon.

Both Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels have accused each other of violating the truce and the meeting comes as the U.S. and its European allies contemplate additional sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In his congressional testimony last week, Kerry said that fresh U.S. sanctions had already been prepared and suggested they could be implemented soon. However, U.S. officials have said since that they will wait to see if the ceasefire and follow-on commitments to end the violence in Ukraine’s east are complied with before putting the sanctions in place.

Monday’s meeting also follows Friday’s murder near the Kremlin of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Kerry and other U.S. and western officials have called on Russia to conduct a prompt, thorough, transparent and credible investigation into the slaying. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will take personal charge of the probe. U.S. officials travelling with Kerry would not say what they thought of Putin’s move and said they would withhold comment until the investigation is complete.