Humanitarian aid organizations have sharply criticized Russian-backed separatists for kicking them out of eastern Ukraine, saying the move will put civilians in the conflict-torn region deeper in jeopardy as winter approaches.
Geneva-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of 10 groups targeted for ejection by the separatists who control part of the Luhansk region, called the decision "unacceptable given the significant medical and humanitarian needs of people affected by the ongoing conflict in Luhansk."
"MSF has been one of the few international organizations providing vital assistance in Luhansk for more than a year," MSF Director of Operations Bart Janssens said in a statement on September 25. "We have been dedicated to supporting doctors and nurses to be able to carry on their crucial work."
The UN humanitarian affairs chief and emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O'Brien, said on September 24 that the "de facto" authorities in Luhansk had ordered UN agencies and several international humanitarian aid groups to leave by September 26.
O'Brien said that all UN agency operations in rebel-held parts of the neighboring Donetsk region had been suspended while a "decision by the de facto authorities in Donetsk on the UN's future operations remains on hold."
"Some 150,000 people are not receiving monthly food distributions," O'Brien said, adding that the suspension of shipments is putting lives at risk and is "having a serious impact on some 3 million people as winter approaches."
He called on the separatists "in both Luhansk and Donetsk to ensure the immediate resumption of UN and international NGO activities."
Russia-backed rebel leaders in Luhansk said on September 24 that they banned 10 Western health relief groups for "grave violations" of what the separatists consider their laws.
But they spared the operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was targeted earlier this month for allegedly breaching fire-safety laws.
"We received 11 accreditation applications. Ten of them were rejected for various reasons," a separatist leader in Luhansk, Vasily Nikitin, said in a statement on the internet.
The Luhansk separatists accused MSF last week of "illegally storing psychotropic medication" that lacked proper registration in either Russia or Ukraine.
MSF denied the allegation, saying it was "greatly disturbed that [the Luhansk separatists] have resorted to making false accusations about us in the media and tried to intimidate our team by bringing armed men into the office on multiple occasions in the last two weeks."
Another organization denied accreditation was Czech-based People in Need, which Nikitin said had "gravely violated our conditions."
A People in Need representative, Tomas Kocian, told RFE/RL on September 25 that his organization had received no official communication from the de facto authorities in Luhansk.
"We do not know exactly what regulations we are accused of having violated and therefore it is very hard to comment the situation," Kocian said.
He said the group would "unfortunately" have to pull out of Luhansk and Donetsk if forced to do so.
People in Need helps distribute medicine and drinking water in both rebel-held and government-held parts of the two provinces, Kocian said. He said it is also providing construction materials to repair buildings damaged in the conflict, which has killed more than 7,900 people since April 2014.
Fighting has decreased significantly since September 1, under a renewed effort to implement a cease-fire agreed as part of an internationally brokered peace deal signed in Minsk in February.
The abrupt move by the rebels seems to come at an awkward time for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to come under renewed pressure to rein in the separatists and abide by all terms of the Minsk deal when he makes an appearance at the UN General Assembly in New York next week.
Clearly referring to Russia, the UN's O'Brien urged "everyone with influence over the de facto authorities to use that influence to ensure the immediate resumption of humanitarian aid by UN agencies and international NGOs."
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP