Red Cross flags dire conditions in east Ukraine as tensions flare anew with Russia

  • ICRC delivering vital aid to both sides in east Ukraine
  • Hundreds of thousands affected by conflict since 2014
  • Residents have to live with landmines, shelling, shortages

GENEVA, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine are living in dire conditions, with poor access to basic services and under constant threat from shelling and landmines, the Red Cross said on Wednesday, amid escalating tensions between Kyiv and Moscow.

With countries heavily focused just now on the massing of Russian troops along Ukraine's borders, there is a serious risk of them ignoring the ongoing plight of people stuck since 2014 in the crossfire between Kyiv's forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, it said.

Low-level hostilities persist despite frequent ceasefires, sometimes resulting in civilian injuries or damage to essential infrastructure such as water pumping stations, said a senior official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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"There are densely populated areas that are regularly feeling the direct effects of shooting, shelling and so on. You have casualties from mines and unexploded ordnance," said Martin Schuepp, ICRC regional director for Europe and Central Asia.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected and continue to be affected by this conflict, and I think that is something that is too often overlooked somehow in the current situation," he told Reuters in an interview at ICRC headquarters.

Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, fuelling Western fears of an invasion that could cause a much greater humanitarian disaster. Moscow denies planning to invade but says it could take unspecified military action unless the West addresses its security concerns. read more

The ICRC has been delivering vital aid supplies since 2014 on both sides of the 'line of contact' that divides eastern Ukraine, and many families, said Schuepp, a Swiss national.

He described the cumulative psychological toll on people who must remain constantly attentive to landmines, who may be woken at any time of the night by artillery fire and whose children may have to dash for shelter while walking to school.

The ICRC deploys 600 aid workers in Ukraine, including 400 in the east, its 10th largest operation worldwide, Schuepp said.

It delivered medical supplies last year to 51 hospitals on both sides of the line of contact, provided food to families and helped repair damaged homes ahead of the winter. It also visits detainees and is trying to trace 800 missing persons in a war that Kyiv says has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

Asked whether the ICRC was bolstering its capacity ahead of a possible wider conflict in Ukraine, Schuepp said it had "emergency stocks to respond to unforseen needs". He declined to comment further on ICRC contingency plans.

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Editing by Gareth Jones

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