Ukrainian forces have endangered civilians during the war with Russia’s invading troops by establishing bases in residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, Amnesty International says.
In a report released on Thursday, Amnesty said a team of researchers had “found evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within populated residential areas, as well as basing themselves in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages” in three regions of the country between April and July.
The rights group’s weeks-long investigation documented instances of Ukrainian forces setting up “de facto military bases” in five hospitals and in 22 of the 29 schools its team visited throughout the eastern Donbas, northeastern Kharkiv and southern Mykolaiv regions.
Even though Ukraine’s schools have been closed since Russia’s February 24 invasion, most are close to residential neighbourhoods.
“Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets. The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure,” Amnesty said, adding that Russian forces had attacked many of the schools found to have been used by Kyiv’s troops.
Amnesty noted that “international humanitarian law requires the parties to a conflict to avoid locating, to the maximum extent feasible, military objectives within or near densely populated areas.”
The report added most of the residential areas where Ukrainian soldiers had been found to have based themselves were located kilometres away from the war’s front lines.
It said that “viable alternatives” had been available such as military bases or densely wooded areas nearby, which would have not endangered civilians.
“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general, said.
“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”
At the same time, the rights group stressed the “Ukrainian military’s practice of locating military objectives within populated areas does not in any way justify indiscriminate Russian attacks.”
Russia has been accused of routinely targeting civilians as part of its offensive, which has killed many thousands of people, caused billions of dollars of damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure, and forced millions of people to flee their homes. Moscow has denied doing so.
‘Disinformation and propaganda’
Kyiv immediately pushed back against Amnesty’s report, which relied on witness accounts, satellite imagery and remote sensing, criticising it as “unfair”.
“This behaviour of Amnesty International is not about finding and reporting the truth to the world, it is about creating a false equivalence – between the offender and the victim, between the country that destroys hundreds and thousands of civilians, cities, territories, and a country that is desperately defending itself,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said in a video posted on Facebook.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a top aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said safeguarding civilian lives was a “priority for Ukraine”, citing Kyiv’s efforts to evacuate non-combatants from front-line areas.
“The only thing that poses a threat to Ukrainians is [Russia’s] army of executioners and rapists coming to commit genocide,” he tweeted. “Our defenders protect their nation and families.”
Podolyak also accused Amnesty of participating in what he described as Russia’s “disinformation and propaganda campaign”, which he said was aimed at discrediting Ukraine’s military in a bid to discourage the country’s supporters from continuing to supply it with weapons.
Moscow, for its part, highlighted the report appeared to match up with its previous claims that Ukrainian fighters had taken up positions in civilian areas.
“We’re talking about it all the time, calling the actions of Ukraine’s armed forces the tactics of using the civilian population as a ‘human shield’,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry, said in a Telegram post.
Russian state and pro-Kremlin media also extensively quoted the report.
A separate report last month by Human Rights Watch identified three occasions in which Ukrainian forces were based among residential homes and four occasions when Russian forces set up military bases in populated areas of Ukraine.