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UN Says Ukraine Death Toll Above 5,350 After Sharp Escalation


As Fighting Rages, Ukrainian Civilians Grow Desperate
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WATCH: As Fighting Rages, Ukrainian Civilians Grow Desperate

A senior UN official says the death toll in the conflict in eastern Ukraine has reached at least 5,358 and urged all sides to halt a potentially "catastrophic" escalation in fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

In a statement on February 3, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said that at least 224 civilians were killed and 545 wounded as fighting intensified in the last three weeks of January.

The statement said the estimate of at least 5,358 people killed and 12,235 wounded since mid-April was "conservative" and that UN agencies believe the actual number of deaths is "considerably higher."

"Any further escalation will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine," Zeid said.

He called on governments and "all those with influence in the region to take measures to ensure full compliance" with a cease-fire and peace plan signed in Minsk in September, the statement said.

It said there has been a "high civilian death toll from the indiscriminate shelling" of government-controlled towns including Debaltseve and Avdiyivka "as well as the cities of Donetsk and Horlivka," which are controlled by the separatists.

Zeid is the latest global leader or official to sound the alarm over the recent escalation of the conflict, which followed Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March and has driven ties between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Pro-Russian rebels drive a self-propelled antiaircraft system in Donetsk on February 3.
Pro-Russian rebels drive a self-propelled antiaircraft system in Donetsk on February 3.

U.S. officials quoted by U.S. media outlets, meanwhile, have said lethal military aid being considered for Ukraine could include Javelin antitank missiles.

The Javelin is a self-guided, short-range antitank missile that can be carried by a team of two foot soldiers.

Officials say other military aid options for Ukraine could involve foreign military sales, training, or the delivery of armored vehicles, small arms, and ammunition.

So far, the United States has provided only nonlethal assistance to Ukraine's military, such as body armor, medical supplies, radio communications systems, and night-vision goggles.

U.S. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said on February 3 that Washington's focus remains "on pursuing a solution through diplomatic means."

She said Washington is "always evaluating other options that will help create space for a negotiated solution to the crisis."

Kyiv and the West accuse Moscow of arming, training, and aiding the rebels by sending troops to fight alongside them in eastern Ukraine, where they hold large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces that border Russia.

Fighting subsided somewhat in December but reignited around January 10, and peace talks in Minsk on January 31 quickly fell apart amid what the United States has called a "Russian-backed offensive" by the rebels.

PHOTO GALLERY: Debaltseve Residents Seek Shelter Below Ground As Clashes Rage

Government officials and rebels said on February 3 that at least 16 civilians had been killed in the previous 24 hours, and the Ukrainian military said five of its soldiers were killed in the same period of time.

Fighting in recent days has been fiercest near Debaltseve, a road and rail hub that forms a government-held pocket between the rebel-controlled provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russia and the rebels blamed Kyiv and the West for the collapse of the January 31 talks, but the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the rebels had come unprepared to discuss basic commitments under the September agreement and instead called for revisions that would cement their control over more territory.

Zeid voiced deep concern over statements by separatist leaders who have threatened to move far beyond separation lines set in the Minsk agreement and seize control over the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in their entirety.

"The public declarations by representatives of the armed groups, rejecting the cease-fire agreement and vowing to scale up the offensive are extremely dangerous and deeply worrying," Zeid said, adding that they compound "the terrifying predicament" of civilians in eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv and Western governments believe Russia's most modest goal is to weaken Ukraine by maintaining a "frozen conflict" in the east, and fear President Vladimir Putin could support a rebel push to seize a swath of southern Ukraine from Donetsk and Crimea.

Many of the civilian casualties in January resulted from rocket attacks, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on February 3 that pro-Russian separatists were "probably responsible" for two of the deadliest.

The New York-based group said its "on-the-ground investigation" indicated that rebel forces fired unguided rockets that killed at least 12 civilians on a bus in the town of Volnovakha on January 13 and at least 30 civilians in the Azov Sea coastal city of Mariupol on January 24.

In an appeal a day after the attack, residents of Mariupol called for "the immediate strengthening of the political and economic pressure on Russia," which has shown little sign of changing its conduct on Ukraine as the result of several rounds of Western sanctions targeting the economy and allies of Putin.

The appeal also called on the international community to designate the separatist political entities as terrorist organizations and Russia as a sponsor of terrorism.

Human Rights Watch said that circumstances point to government forces' responsibility for an unguided rocket attack that killed two civilians in Donetsk on January 13.

It said it was unable to attribute responsibility for a January 22 attack in Donetsk that reportedly killed 13 civilians, but said both sides were putting civilians at risk by using "explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas."

UN rights chief Zeid also expressed concern over the situation in Crimea, where Muslim Tatars say they have suffered discrimination and abuse at the hands of the Russian authorities in control of the Black Sea peninsula.

Zeid said there had been "multiple violations of the rights of Crimean Tatars" and that more than 20,000 people "have been internally displaced from Crimea to mainland Ukraine since the March 'referendum', which followed the takeover of the peninsula by so-called self-defense forces."

The Kremlin has sharpened its rhetoric amid the recent escalation of fighting, with Putin last week asserting that Ukrainian forces were acting as "foreign NATO legion" fighting a proxy war against Russia.

NATO said on February 3 that Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will soon meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the first time since Stoltenberg became chief of the Western alliance on October 1.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Stoltenberg and Lavrov will hold bilateral talks during a three-day annual security conference in Munich that begins on February 6.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, Interfax, and Unian
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