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Washington (AFP) - The top US diplomat for Europe said Tuesday that Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine are living under a "reign of terror," blaming Russia for a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.
"Even as Ukraine is building a peaceful, democratic, independent nation across 93 percent of its territory, Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine are suffering a reign of terror," Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"Today Crimea remains under illegal occupation and human rights abuses are the norm, not the exception, for many at risk groups there," said Nuland, who has long been a tough critic of Moscow.
She said several groups -- Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians who refuse to surrender their passports, gays and lesbians, journalists and others -- are at risk of persecution.
"In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage," she said.
"This manufactured conflict -- controlled by the Kremlin; fueled by Russian tanks and heavy weapons; financed at Russian taxpayers' expense -- has cost the lives of more than 6,000 Ukrainians, but also of hundreds of young Russians sent to fight and die there by the Kremlin, in a war their government denies."
When asked about the number of Russian soldiers she believed had been killed in the conflict, Nuland replied: "Hundreds and hundreds."
"I can't speak to more than 400 or 500 at the moment," she added.
Last week, Nuland had told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Russia has deployed "thousands and thousands" of troops to Ukraine, with their own command structure.
She also said it has transferred hundreds of pieces of military equipment since December.
Moscow has always denied any military involvement in the neighboring state.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko on Monday confirmed that both sides in the conflict had pulled back most of their heavy weapons from the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, while London on Tuesday accused Russia of "subverting" the security of eastern Europe.
The United States had in recent days welcomed the drop-off in fighting in eastern Ukraine, while maintaining its calls for the full implementation of a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists that went into effect last month.
Washington nevertheless accuses Moscow of sending arms and other equipment over the Ukrainian border.
"In the last few days, we can confirm that Russia has transferred additional tanks, armored vehicles, heavy artillery, rocket systems and other military equipment," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
"Russian battalion tactical groups remain deployed near the Ukrainian border," she added.