International watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Ukrainian army of violating "the laws of war" through the use of so-called cluster munitions in separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine.
The group -- which adds that "circumstances indicate that antigovernment forces might also" have used such weapons -- warns in its October 21 report that use of cluster munitions "may amount to war crimes."
Cluster munitions are projectiles that indiscriminantly disperse scores or even hundreds of smaller explosives, called "submunitions," that can explode across a broad area or lie idle until disturbed.
"During a weeklong investigation on the ground in eastern Ukraine, Human Rights Watch has found widespread use of cluster munitions," Ole Solvang, a HRW senior researcher, says in a video released along with the report. "Our evidence shows that the Ukrainian armed forces were responsible for at least some of these attacks. In the incidents documented by Human Rights Watch, cluster munitions killed at least six civilians and injured dozens."
The charge against Ukrainian army forces represents some of the most damning criticism so far of Kyiv's military campaign to preserve control of breakaway eastern regions where Western governments accuse Moscow of fueling the conflict with troops and material support.
AFP quoted a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman, Bogdan Senyk, as rejecting the accusation as "groundless."
Nearly 4,000 people have been killed so far in the seven-month conflict, with deaths mounting despite a cease-fire signed in early September that all sides say is holding -- formally, at least.
HRW concludes that such weapons had been employed "in more than a dozen urban and rural locations" in eastern Ukraine. It says that cluster minitions "killed at least six people and injured dozens" in the 12 incidents it documented.
The cluster-munitions charge hints at a growing breach between Ukraine's central authorities and residents in the east, which has borne the brunt of the fighting and where damaged relations with Kyiv could prove difficult to repair.
'Evidence points To Ukraine Forces'
It could also lend credibility to Moscow's argument that Kyiv is particularly insensitive -- or even represents a threat -- to the plight of ethnic Russians and other Ukrainian citizens in areas where pro-Russian separatism has maintained a foothold.
Both sides in the seven-month-old conflict have been accused by the United Nations of abuses and by rights group like Amnesty International of torture, the shelling of civilian areas, and even summary executions.
HRW notes that "while it was not possible to conclusively determine responsibility for many of the attacks, the evidence points to Ukrainan government forces' responsibility" for attacks on the rebel-held industrial city of Donetsk, including a bombing that killed a Red Cross worker in early October.
HRW suggests another cluster-munitions attack, in August on the Kyiv-held village of Starobesheve, was likely perpetrated by pro-Russian separatists or Russian forces.
The HRW conclusions -- and similar accusations against the Ukrainian army but not separatists in a "New York Times" report also on October 21 -- are based on blast marks and other indications of trajectory of the weapons, in addition to eyewitness accounts of whose forces were where at the time of the incidents.
They also include photos and other documentation of unexploded cluster munitions.
AFP also quoted a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces' counterseparatist effort in the east, Vladyslav Seleznyov, as describing cluster munitions as "banned weapons" and adding, "We do not use banned weapons."
Ukraine is not among the more than 100 signatories to the 2008 international Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).
Officials from Ukraine, Russia, and separatists from the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" and "Luhansk People's Republic," signed a cease-fire on September 5 that has curbed some of the worst violence. But a longer-term road map for peace remains elusive.