423 killed in eastern Ukraine clashes since April: UN

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - Clashes between pro-Russian separatists and army forces in eastern Ukraine killed an estimated 423 soldiers and civilians between April 15 and June 20, a senior UN official said on Tuesday.

Ivan Simonovic, the UN's assistant secretary for human rights, also said the number of internally displaced people had doubled over the past two weeks with the movement of some 15,200 within the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Speaking to the United Nations Security Council, Simonovic said the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, had interviewed more than 46,100 internally displaced people (IDPs) as of Monday, including 11,500 from Crimea and nearly 34,600 from the east of the Ukraine.

However, he warned, "in the absence of a formal registration system, and given the limited access to some areas by humanitarian partners, the number of IDPs is likely to be higher." Simonovic is the author of a report on the human rights situation in Ukraine published last week.

"While we have not received reports of deliberate targeting of the population at large, we are verifying allegations that security forces could have taken measures to prevent civilian casualties," he told the Security Council.

Simonovic added that "the government must ensure that its armed forces refrain from using excessive force, and ensure that its ongoing security operations are at all times in line with the relevant international human rights standards." "In all circumstances, it must ensure the protection of those who are not involved in the fighting," he said.

Simonovic spoke as nine servicemen died when insurgents shot down an army helicopter in the east of Ukraine, just a day after a top militia leader ordered a temporary ceasefire in an unexpected reversal of a firm rejection of President Petro Poroshenko's earlier peace overtures.

Last Friday, Poroshenko ordered his forces to hold their fire for a week in an effort to resolve the worst crisis since Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

And in a shock change of heart that Kiev hailed as the "first practical step" in defusing the conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Russian lawmakers Tuesday to revoke a resolution allowing him to invade Ukraine.

Simonovic welcomed yesterday's rebel announcement regarding the ceasefire, saying it "creates a window of opportunity for human rights and humanitarian confidence building measures." In separate remarks to the Security Council, the UN's assistant secretary general for political affairs said that "overall the ceasefire is holding." But Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "expects all sides to live up to the ceasefire and to leave the door open for effective negotiation and mediation towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis," Taye-Brook Zerihoun said.

In the debate that followed, Russia and Western powers on the panel traded barbs - as they have done in previous discussions about the months-long conflict.

US Ambassador Samantha Power, while welcoming Putin's "more conciliatory rhetoric" in recent days said this must now be reflected by "a genuine shift in the facts on the ground." "We have urged Russia to be part of the political solution to the crisis in Ukraine," Power said.

"But if it persists with the same escalatory tactics, it must face additional costs."

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