Sergey Ponomarev / New York Times / Redux Pictures

Ukraine military denies using banned cluster bombs against rebels

Report accuses pro-government forces of ‘widespread’ deployment of munition that spread bomblets over wide area

Ukraine's armed forces on Tuesday rejected allegations that they have indiscriminately used banned cluster bombs in the war against pro-Russian insurgents in the separatist east.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published the results of a detailed investigation late Monday identifying 12 incidents in which the munitions, prohibited under international law, killed six people — including a Swiss aid worker — in and around the rebel-held city of Donetsk earlier this month.

The global rights group said there appeared to be "widespread" use of cluster bombs, which are highly inaccurate because they spray across a large area. They also often fail to explode, thereby posing a danger to civilians in the future.

The report came as violence continues to rumble in eastern Ukraine, in violation of a cease-fire agreement struck in September between officials in Kiev and the Moscow-backed rebels. Though the intensity of fighting has abated since last month, daily shelling continues, with a powerful explosion shaking Donetsk on Monday.

The same day, Ukraine’s parliament said in a report that more than 300 Ukrainian soldiers were killed during a weeks-long battle in the city of Iloviask, which remains under rebel control.

The violence spurred German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say on Monday, “There’s a long way to a cease-fire, unfortunately,” given the number of people who have been killed since the deal was struck. Merkel and other Western leaders are pushing for both sides to uphold the cease-fire and for local elections to be held in eastern Ukraine under the auspices of Ukraine’s constitution.

Russia, which has denied providing material support for the rebels despite NATO and Western claims to the contrary, backs the pro-Russian rebels’ push for greater autonomy in the largely Russian-speaking regions of the east. Moscow has come under fire and biting sanctions for its meddling in Ukraine, which Kiev and its Western allies say includes providing considerable arms for the insurgency.

But the HRW report supported Russian claims that Ukraine's pro-Western government has violated human rights and killed innocent civilians through indiscriminate use of force. HRW urged Ukrainian forces to "immediately make a commitment not to use cluster munitions" and for the government to "accede to the treaty banning their use."

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions has been signed by 113 countries, but Ukraine is not a signatory (nor is the United States). "It is shocking to see a weapon that most countries have banned used so extensively in eastern Ukraine," said HRW researcher Mark Hiznay.

Cluster munitions contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller explosives. HRW noted that these smaller explosives "are spread indiscriminately over a wide area, often the size of a football field, putting anyone in the area at the time of attack, whether combatants or civilians, at risk of death or injury."

Two top Ukrainian military officials denied using such weapons when contacted by Agence France-Presse, with one, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Bogdan Senyk, calling the allegations “groundless.”

Vladyslav Seleznyov, Ukraine's eastern campaign spokesman, also dismissed HRW’s evidence showing that the military shelled civilian neighborhoods in Donetsk — home to nearly a million people before the war.

"Human Rights Watch knows that these are banned weapons, and we do not use banned weapons," he said. "Neither do we shell civilian neighborhoods, because this endangers lives. But our opponents constantly attack these neighborhoods," he added.

Reporters across Ukraine’s east have witnessed repeated shelling of city districts, contributing to a total death toll from the fighting of about 3,700, according to U.N. estimates.

But it has usually been impossible to say with any certainty whether these shells and rockets are fired by the Moscow-backed insurgents or Ukrainian forces. Most attacks are conducted from a distance of a few dozen miles, and the sides typically trade accusations of responsibility.

HRW said that "while not conclusive, circumstances indicate that anti-government forces might have [also] been responsible for the use of cluster munitions."

The report was released the same day Amnesty International, another rights group, said the scale of killings and reports of mass graves was "hugely exaggerated." However, Amnesty did say there was evidence both sides carried out extrajudicial killings.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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