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Few Want To Take Responsibility As Civilian Casualties Add Up In Ukraine War

Local residents pass the covered body of an apparent civilian casualty in the village of Stanitsa Luhanskaya, in the eastern industrial province of Luhansk, on July 2.
Local residents pass the covered body of an apparent civilian casualty in the village of Stanitsa Luhanskaya, in the eastern industrial province of Luhansk, on July 2.

The war in Ukraine's east has had its share of horrific images, but one recently stood out for its poetic cruelty.

A young mother in jeans shorts and a tanktop lay splayed on the grass with her leg obliterated -- dead, she continued to cling to her lifeless infant (Warning: Graphic image).

As international attention focuses on the Malaysia Airlines crash investigation and increased sanctions against Russia -- amid fighting in Gaza and Iraq and other world crises -- Ukrainian and pro-Russian partisans are bitterly blaming each other for scenes like this as the war in Ukraine appears to be growing more violent.

Less than a week after Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report accusing Kyiv of using unguided Grad rockets in civilian areas, videos continue to show them falling in separatist-controlled cities like Horlivka, seemingly arbitrarily.

At least 22 civilians reportedly died in shelling on July 29 alone, as Kyiv appeared to be closing in on separatist positions.

Ukrainian officials, who have denied using Grads in populated areas despite Human Rights Watch's charge that artillery has come from Ukrainian army positions, have claimed the deadly attacks are provocations from Russia-backed separatists hoping to gain public sympathy.

And what people believe often appears to depend on their political positions.

When videos and photos appeared online of the mother and child, said to have been killed in Horlivka, reaction was swift.

InfoResist, a pro-Kyiv site, referring to the separatists, said, "Terrorist Grads kill a young mother with her child in her hands."

"Open your eyes, blind Europe," said a meme posted by a pro-Russian supporter who blamed the Ukrainian army for the deaths. (Warning: Graphic image)

A UN report released on July 28 said more than 1,000 civilians had been killed since the conflict began in earnest in April when armed pro-Russian separatists began occupying cities in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Rights groups, who say separatists also have Grads, have accused them of crimes including torture, kidnapping, and execution. Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass grave with at least eight bodies in Slovyansk, an area that was until recently controlled by separatists.

And there is evidence that Moscow has supplied rebels with increasingly sophisticated weaponry, including the Buk missile launcher that has been blamed for downing the Malaysian airliner with 298 passengers and crew on July 17.

But as Kyiv appears to be gaining ground against the rebels, some supporters appear unwilling to acknowledge the civilian cost of the advance.

Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko stated categorically to reporters on July 29 that "Ukrainian troops do not use artillery and aviation while fighting in cities."

"Ukrainian troops will recapture the city of Donetsk in order to save its infrastructure," Lysenko added. "But the primary goal is to save the lives of people -- peaceful civilians -- who remain there. They are suffering at the moment from being shelled by terrorists."

And an anchor for Hromadske TV, an independent Kyiv-based Internet TV site that bills itself as an "objective and unbiased" information source, cut off an interview with a well-regarded researcher in the Russia office of Human Rights Watch.

The researcher, Tanya Lokshina, had insisted on speaking about civilian casualties but refused to blame Russia outright for the conflict, despite repeated demands from the anchor, Daniil Yanevskyy.

Referring to the interview on Facebook, Yanevskyy asked users to "like" his post if they supported the idea that having a guest on the air who "demeaned the soldiers who have shed blood in eastern Ukraine" was "unacceptable."

It has over 2,500 likes as of this writing.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.