More than 6,000 killed in 'merciless devastation' in Ukraine: UN

Geneva (AFP) - The UN reported Monday over 6,000 people have perished in the "merciless devastation of civilian lives and infrastructure" in Ukraine, and warned the targeting of civilian areas could be a "crime against humanity."

"More than 6,000 lives have now been lost in less than a year due to the fighting in eastern Ukraine," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement accompanying the report, which noted a "serious escalation" in the conflict since 2015 began.

He called on all sides to respect a fragile February 15 ceasefire, and "halt the indiscriminate shelling and other hostilities that have created a dreadful situation for civilians."

Speaking in Geneva at the presentation of Monday's report, UN human rights envoy to Ukraine Ivan Simonovic said "the deliberate targeting of civilian areas may constitute a war crime, and if widespread and systematic, a crime against humanity."

The report also detailed arbitrary detention, torture and abductions committed mainly by armed militias, but in some cases also by Ukrainian law enforcement agencies.

It aired suspicions of summary, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, including of Ukrainian soldiers found "with their hands tied with white electrical cable" at Donetsk airport after it was captured by rebels in January.

Altogether, it found that 5,665 people were killed and 13,961 wounded from the beginning of the conflict in April through the middle of last month. But that figure, Zeid's office said, surpassed 6,000 deaths as fighting escalated in recent weeks, especially near the Donetsk airport and around Debaltseve.

- 'Undermining potential for peace' -

Heavy weaponry and foreign fighters -- including militants from Russia -- continue flowing into rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk, the report found, which it said is "undermining the potential for peace."

But Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Seriy Kyslytsya said Monday the UN report did not go far enough to "name the root causes of the deteriorating human rights situation" in his country, which he blamed on Russia's annexation of Crimea a year ago.

In an address to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, he claimed Moscow had "turned Crimea into an isolated military camp and its residents into recluses."

The report does detail widespread pressure and intimidation against Crimean Tatars, human rights activists and journalists, and Simonovic warned the situation on the peninsula was "deteriorating rapidly."

Spreading violence and dire living conditions across eastern Ukraine have forced rising numbers of people to flee, with more than one million people having been registered as internally displaced by mid-February, the report said.

A full 60 percent of those internally displaced people were believed to be pensioners suffering most from Kiev's decision to halt payments of salaries, pensions and social benefit to people living in areas controlled by rebels, the report found.

Meantime, the report noted, the Ukrainian authorities' assistance for displaced people "remained inadequate," with reception centres "overwhelmed, under-resourced and under-prepared."