Ukraine conflict death toll soars past 3,000: UN

Jonathan Fowler
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Relatives mourn in Debaltseve behind the body of a woman killed when her building was damaged by rockets during an overnight shelling on September 22, 2014

Relatives mourn in Debaltseve behind the body of a woman killed when her building was damaged by rockets during an overnight shelling on September 22, 2014 (AFP Photo/Anatolii Stepanov)

Geneva (AFP) - The death toll in Ukraine's conflict has soared past 3,000, likely by a significant margin, top UN human rights official Ivan Simonovic said Tuesday.

"The current registered death toll, as at 21 September, is 3,543, if we are to include the 298 victims of the Malaysian plane crash," Simonovic told the UN Human Rights Council.

Not counting the plane crash, the official toll therefore stands at 3,245.

"Let me add that this number covers killings registered by available resources, and that the actual number is likely to be significantly higher," the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights said.

Simonovic has made regular monitoring visits to Ukraine since the country plunged into crisis after the February ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Pro-Moscow rebels rose up against the Kiev government after Yanukovych was forced from power, and Russia has repeatedly been accused by Kiev and the West of arming them.

Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, Yurii Klymenko, told the Human Rights Council that Russia had offered "direct support" for the rebels.

Moscow rejects the claim, and has in turn slammed Kiev's offensive against rebel bastions in the south and east.

In the runup to a ceasefire signed on September 5, the death toll rose sharply, Simonovic said.

Between mid-April and mid-July, an average of 11 people were killed daily.

From mid-July to mid-August, that figure more than tripled to 36 per day, then climbed to 42 before the ceasefire was signed.

Since the deal, the rate of killings has fallen to below 10 per day, Simonovic said.

He said that the ceasefire and a related political accord signed the same day "present the most significant opportunity so far for a peaceful solution to the situation in the east".

"Although not fully respected so far, positive effects have already been felt," he said.

"There is a glimmer of hope," he added.

But abuses continue in rebel-held areas, Simonovic said, with abductions, killings and torture.

"They abduct people for ransom, for forced labour, and to exchange them for their fighters held by the Ukrainian authorities. There is complete breakdown in law and order. The rule of law has been replaced by the rule of fear and intimidation," he said.

While hundreds of people held by the rebels have been freed since the ceasefire, Simonovic warned that 500-800 people were still in their custody.

Ukrainian authorities have also held more than 1,000 people in rebel regions, he said, urging the government to ensure they were treated fairly and to probe violations by its forces, notably volunteer battalions.

- 'Disastrous winter' -

Simonovic also urged the international community to step up efforts to help the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians driven from their homes by the conflict.

"The situation of internally displaced persons is alarming," he said, noting that between early August and early September, the official figure doubled to 275,498.

"The majority of internally displaced persons seem to be unregistered and the actual number could therefore be much higher," he said.

"A disastrous winter for the IDP population has to be prevented. It will be important to ensure that national and international assistance is mobilised urgently to cope with what could become a humanitarian emergency if not tackled in a timely and effective manner," Simonovic warned.

In addition to those who have left for other parts of Ukraine, the UN refugee agency earlier this month said that Moscow had told it that some 260,000 people had sought asylum in Russia.

And tens of thousands are thought to have headed westwards to the European Union or former Soviet republics such as Belarus.