UN accuses Ukraine forces, pro-Russia rebels of 'torture'

Kiev (AFP) - The United Nations on Monday released a damning report accusing Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels of torturing and indiscriminately shelling civilians in the bloody conflict in the separatist east.

Its global governing body believes the eight-month conflict has killed at least 4,634 and wounded 10,234 people -- although Monday's survey suggests "the actual numbers of casualties is likely to be considerably higher".

And it said the lives of 5.2 million residents living in the devastated region were deteriorating further with the onset of winter and a complete breakdown of local infrastructure that has left homes without water or heat.

The "situation is becoming extremely dire for the population, particularly older persons, children and people in institutional care, many of whom are on the brink of survival," the United Nations' human rights office said.

But the 27-page study was careful to assign blame for the humanitarian crisis to both the pro-Western government in Kiev and the mostly Russian-speaking insurgents who rose up in April against its rule.

"The efforts of the government to safeguard the territorial integrity of Ukraine and restore law and order in the conflict zone have been accompanied by arbitrary detentions, torture, and enforced disappearances of people suspected of 'separatism and terrorism'," the report said.

The United Nations said the guerrillas, in turn, were guilty of creating a criminal state in parts of the industrial regions of Lugansk and Donetsk they control with the help of "foreign fighters" -- a reference to Russian crack troops whose presence Moscow denies.

"As law and order increasingly broke down, so more human rights abuses, such as killings, torture, abduction for ransom and forced labour, started to be committed by members of armed groups, supported by increasing numbers of foreign fighters," said the report.

UN human rights envoy Ivan Simonovic said the guerrillas were responsible for a larger share of the atrocities recorded by monitors who were first dispatched to the ex-Soviet republic during Russia's seizure of Crimea in March.

"If I would speak about the quantity of crimes and quantity of other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, the majority of them have been committed by representatives of armed groups," Simonovic told reporters in Kiev.

But UN officials also pointed to "limited progress" by Kiev in investigating more than 300 cases of indiscriminate shelling witnessed since the start of the year.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- elected in a snap May ballot that followed the downfall after months of street protests of a Moscow-backed leadership -- has promised to examine allegations of abuses by his troops.

Rights groups believe that some of the gravest crimes are being committed by Ukrainian ultra-nationalist volunteers who joined the fighting after taking an active part in last winter's popular uprising in Kiev.

Moscow also accuses the SBU security service -- Ukraine's chief successor to the Soviet-era KGB -- of abducting rebel sympathisers and detaining without charge Russian reporters covering the war.

Ukrainian and rebel representatives issued no immediate comment on the findings.

- 1,350 deaths since truce -

The UN rights office believes that 1,357 people have been killed since the sides struck a Russian-brokered peace agreement on September 5 that only partially slowed the scale of bloodshed.

It estimated that the daily toll in the weeks preceeding that agreement had reached 42 -- nearly one-third the average seen in the Syrian war.

The rate has since slipped to 13 people per day. Yet this figure is still higher than that seen in the first three months of the revolt.

Kiev and separatist leaders struck their fourth ceasefire agreement last Tuesday that was supposed to be coincide with a new round of comprehensive peace negotiations involving European and Russian diplomats in the Belarussian capital Minsk.

But the meeting has been delayed by the foes' failure to agree on a clear agenda. Poroshenko's top foreign policy adviser said Moscow had also failed to confirm its attendance or put sufficient presser on the rebels to take part.

"The ball is in (Russia's) court," Valeriy Chaly told reporters.