UN rights boss urges dialogue, end to violence in Ukraine

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GENEVA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Tuesday for efforts to prevent a further escalation of the crisis in Ukraine and a return to dialogue in order to spare civilians and avert an exodus of refugees.

Russian President Vladimir Putin granted official recognition on Monday to two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, triggering Western condemnation and some sanctions and fuelling fears of a bigger military confrontation in the region. read more

"I call on all sides to cease hostilities and to pave the way for dialogue instead of setting the stage for further violence," Bachelet said in a statement issued ahead of a scheduled meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday.

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"We continue to monitor the situation closely from our offices on both sides of the contact line in the east of the country," she said, referring to the zone where Ukrainian government forces face off against the pro-Russian separatists.

Loud blasts were heard on Tuesday in the centre of Donetsk, the largest city in the region known collectively as the Donbass, though their origin was unclear. Kyiv says some 15,000 people have been killed in the Donbass conflict since 2014.

Russia has said some 70,000 people were evacuated to its territory in recent days from the Donbass amid fears of intensified fighting.

SYRIAN PARALLEL

Separately on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said it feared Russia's armed forces might adopt tactics in Ukraine similar to those in Idlib, Syria, where the group documented Russian and Syrian air strikes on schools, hospitals and other civilian structures.

"Obviously we may be on the verge of a significant armed conflict. Our concern is how might that conflict be fought," Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told a news briefing in Geneva.

Roth highlighted its report of Oct. 2020 that documented dozens of "unlawful" air and ground strikes on civilian targets around Idlib between April 2019 and March 2020 that killed hundreds of civilians and displaced over 1.4 million people.

"These are blatant war crimes... We found that Putin had command responsibility (for the Idlib operations). Indeed he gave an honour to the commanders who were overseeing this war crime strategy," Roth said, expressing concern that it might also be implemented in Ukraine.

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Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by Gareth Jones

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