Death toll in east Ukraine conflict nears 2,600: UN

Kiev (AFP) - The conflict raging in eastern Ukraine has killed nearly 2,600 people, the United Nations said Friday, voicing concern about atrocities committed by armed groups and the increasing involvement of foreign fighters.

A UN human rights report said the surging toll was caused by the fighting moving into densely populated areas of the country.

The number of people who have fled their homes has reached at least 430,000, according to UN figures, with almost half heading to Russia.

It said at least 2,593 people including at least 23 children, have been killed in Ukraine between mid-April when the conflict erupted and August 27, with another 5,956 injured.

The death toll would be close to 3,000 if the 298 victims of the MH17 crash in July were included, the UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said as he presented the findings in Kiev.

In a grim sign of the growing human cost of the fighting, the United Nations said the number of people killed each day has risen to an average 36.

"Especially concerning is the alleged increased participation of foreign fighters in the hostilities, which further fuels the conflict," Simonovic said, though he cautioned that rights monitors were not in a position to provide military analysis.

The report said at least 468 people were still being held by the pro-Russian rebels, who are "putting civilian populations at risk" by basing their positions in and attacking from densely populated areas, particularly in the cities of Lugansk and Donetsk.

"Armed groups continued to commit killings, abductions, physical and psychological torture," the report said.

- 'Horrendous crimes' -

In a damning statement issued on Friday, Human Rights Watch also said rebels were committing "horrendous crimes" against those in their custody.

Captives told the organisation of stabbings, cigarette burns and mock executions, and HRW said at least six were used as hostages for ransom or exchange.

"There are solid grounds to be seriously concerned about the safety and well-being of anyone held by insurgent forces in eastern Ukraine," the group's Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson said.

Simonovic said that "the rule of fear and intimidation of the armed groups has been well documented," including "forced mobilisation and threat of the death penalty" for those who don't want to fight for the rebel cause.

The UN report said that pro-Kiev volunteer battalions may also be guilty of rights violations such as arbitrary detentions and torture and that such reports must be investigated.

The army has increasingly arrested people it suspects of collaborating with rebels, whose rights have "not always been observed," the report said.

The conflict will leave "deep psychological scars" on people in affected areas, particularly children, who will need psychological assistance, it said.

The conflict has deepened the divide in Ukrainian society, Simonovic said.

"What I am seeing is that due to escalation of the hostilities, the divide is deepening. That should be stopped."