Russia has committed wide-ranging war crimes in Ukraine such as wilful killings and torture, a United Nations mandated investigative body says, in some cases making children watch loved ones being raped and detaining others alongside dead bodies.
The alleged crimes, including the deportation of children, were detailed in a report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which said some acts may amount to crimes against humanity.
At her weekly press briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that Russia regularly heard accusations like these.
She added that if those behind such reports supported objectivity “then we are ready to analyse specific cases, answer questions, provide data, statistics and facts. But if they are biased, if they represent only one point of view… then there is no use responding to these reports.”
Russia denies committing atrocities or attacking civilians in Ukraine.
Based on more than 500 interviews as well as satellite images and visits to detention sites and graves, the report comes as the International Criminal Court in The Hague is expected to seek the arrest of Russian officials for forcibly deporting children from Ukraine and attacking civilian infrastructure.
It said Russian forces carried out “indiscriminate and disproportionate” attacks on Ukraine and called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.
“The ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine has had devastating effects at various levels,” Erik Møse, chair of the commission, told a press briefing.
“Human losses and the general disregard for the life of civilians… are shocking.”
The report said at least 13 waves of Russian attacks since October on Ukraine’s energy-related infrastructure as well as its use of torture “may amount to crimes against humanity”.
It concluded that 16,000 children have been unlawfully transferred and deported from Ukraine, citing a Ukraine government figure.
Russia denies the charge, saying it has relocated people voluntarily from Ukraine.
Other children were forced to watch their loved ones raped or, in one instance, detained in a school basement alongside the bodies of the deceased, the report said.
Victims in Russian detention facilities were subject to electric shocks with a military phone – a treatment known as a “call to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin” – or hung from the ceiling in a “parrot position,” the report said.
The commission’s 18-page report will be presented to the Geneva Human Rights Council on Monday.
Countries at the council, the only body made up of governments to protect human rights worldwide, aims to extend and deepen the commission’s mandate.
Sometimes, the council’s probes lead to prosecutions in international courts.
The commission said it is working on a list of possible perpetrators that would be passed onto UN authorities.
Asked whether Russia’s acts might amount to genocide, as Ukraine believes, Møse said it had not yet found such evidence but would continue to follow up.
Ukraine, which has called for the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute Russia’s political and military leadership with aggression over the invasion, has said the commission was essential to ensure Russia would be held accountable.
The commission found reasonable grounds to conclude that the Ukraine invasion qualifies as an act of aggression.
The report also concluded that Ukrainian forces had committed a “small number of violations” including what appeared to be indiscriminate attacks and torture of prisoners of war.
The Ukrainian presidency was not immediately available for comment.
China urges Ukraine talks as Bakhmut battle continues
China wants Russia and Ukraine to hold peace talks and is concerned about an escalation of the war, senior Chinese diplomat Qin Gang has told his Ukrainian counterpart over a phone call as the battle for Bakhmut continued.
China, which has refrained from condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, has urged both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire in its 12-point paper on the “political resolution of the Ukraine crisis”.
The plan, which received a lukewarm welcome on both sides, called for the protection of civilians and respect for each other’s sovereignty.
“China hopes that all parties will remain calm, rational and restrained, and resume peace talks as soon as possible,” Qin told Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Russian Vladimir Putin as soon as next week and hold a virtual meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Analysts say it will be hard for China to get Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table but some pointed out that Xi could act as a “back channel” for starting momentum towards talks.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield in Ukraine’s east, Ukrainian forces continued to withstand Russian assaults on the now-ruined city of Bakhmut.
Reuters reporters about 1.5km from the frontline heard a constant rumble of artillery on all sides.
Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured Bakhmut’s eastern part but have so far failed to encircle the city.
“Sometimes we see groups of seven people (Russian soldiers). We strike, three fall and the rest continue to advance,” said Marian, 21, a member of Ukraine’s 80th Air Assault Brigade, at a mortar position, describing his experiences along the front.
The brigade fired seven mortars from that position while small arms fire could also be heard in the distance.
Russia says taking Bakhmut would be a major success, opening a path to capture the rest of the surrounding Donetsk region, one of its central war aims.
Ukraine says it has decided not to pull out because it is inflicting huge losses on the Russian assault force which will make it easier to stage a counterattack later this year.
“They (Russian forces) need this victory like air and therefore do not count the losses,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Ukrainian television.
The Pentagon on Thursday released a de-classified video showing a Russian military jet intercept a US drone downed over the Black Sea two days ago.
The United States has said Tuesday’s incident showed Russia was behaving irresponsibly in international airspace, while Russia accused the US of trying to escalate tensions near Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it forcibly annexed in 2014.
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