GENEVA (AFP) - More than 9,000 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine began, the United Nations said on Wednesday (Dec 9), warning that even though fighting had abated, millions were in precarious situations.
The UN human rights office hailed "a sharp de-escalation of hostilities" in the conflict zones in eastern Ukraine since the warring sides signed a new truce on Sept 1, following a fragile truce agreed in Minsk in February.
"Though the hostilities have not ceased completely ... shelling of populated areas has decreased dramatically," Gianni Magazzeni, head of the office's Americas, Europe and Central Asia branch, told reporters.
"The number of civilian casualties, especially those caused by shelling, has also significantly dropped," he said.
In its latest report on Ukraine, the rights office said that between Aug 16 and Nov 15, 47 civilians were killed and 131 injured in the conflict zones of eastern Ukraine, less than half of those registered during the previous three-month period.
But nonetheless, at least 9,115 people - including civilians, soldiers and militia members - have perished since the beginning of the conflict in mid-April 2014, with another 20,797 injured, Magazzeni said, describing this as "a conservative estimate".
He said the steep increase from the previous toll of nearly 8,000 deaths reported by his office in September was among other things due to previously unidentified bodies in morgues being added, and many people long considered missing now counted as dead.
He warned though that since the cut-off date of the UN report, "there has been an increase in ceasefire violations", including "the renewed employment of artillery systems in the conflict area."
Magazzeni also cautioned that "an inflow of ammunition, weaponry and fighters from the Russian Federation into the territories controlled by the armed groups continues, leaving the situation highly flammable."
Since mid-November, another six people have been killed and 21 wounded, he said.
Most of those hurt and killed since August have fallen victim to landmines and other explosive devices, the report said, underscoring "the urgent need for extensive mine clearance and mine awareness actions on both sides of the contact line."
Ukraine's emergencies ministry said that by last month it had cleared the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the former Soviet republic's once-booming industrial heartland of more than 44,000 mines.
But the warring sides and foreign monitors are struggling to estimate how many unexploded devices remain.
"Mapping of the minefields is so far incomplete and inaccurate," Wednesday's report said, cautioning that the arrival of snow would make the situation even more dangerous, since it would cover and even displace booby-traps.
The rights office meanwhile warned that "serious human rights concerns persist", including "continuing impunity, torture and an absence of the rule of law in the east."
The humanitarian situation also remained dire for many of the nearly three million living in the affected areas, as well as for the more than 1.5 million who have been displaced inside Ukraine.
"Civilians in the conflict-afflicted eastern parts of Ukraine end the year as they began it, in a very difficult humanitarian and human rights situation," UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement.
"Elderly people have no access to their life savings, people with disabilities have little assistance, and reduced access to healthcare has left many in dismal, precarious, even life-threatening situations," he cautioned.
The report said civilians in areas controlled by armed groups in the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk continued to face serious rights abuses, including killings, forced labour, and extortion.
The government forces were meanwhile slammed for using arbitrary and secret detention.
Zeid reminded all sides in the conflict that they can be held criminally accountable for the human rights abuses in territories under their control.