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Enmity and Civilian Toll Rise in Ukraine as World’s Attention Is Diverted

A woman walks by an apartment complex in Snizhne, Ukraine, that was hit by a rocket attack on July 15. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York TimesA woman walks by an apartment complex in Snizhne, Ukraine, that was hit by a rocket attack on July 15. Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

DONETSK, Ukraine — One was a retired cook. Another installed alarms in cars. Another was a cleaner in a grocery store who had gone out to buy ground beef to make her son meatball soup.

With international attention focused on the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the deaths of these three civilians — some of the roughly 800 who have been killed in the battle over eastern Ukraine — have gone virtually unnoticed by the outside world.

As the Ukrainian military has pressed its offensive against the pro-Russian rebels who have taken over its eastern edge, an operation now in its fourth month, it has diminished the territory the rebels control. But those advances have come at a steep human cost. According to a United Nations count released on Monday, 799 civilians have been killed since mid-April, when Ukraine began to battle insurgents here, and at least 2,155 have been wounded.

The killings have left the population in eastern Ukraine embittered toward Ukraine’s pro-Western government, and are helping to spur recruitment for the pro-Russian militias. In time, even if the Ukrainian military routs the rebels and retakes the east, the civilian deaths are likely to leave deep resentments here, and could complicate reconciliation efforts for decades to come.

The rising toll of the conflict in eastern Ukraine — the first open hostilities in Europe in 15 years — is a direct consequence of the nature of the war here. A significant portion of the fighting takes the form of low-tech airstrikes and artillery fired at a distance from aging weaponry, tactics that can inflict significant harm on civilians. (In comparison, 330 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, the United Nations said. There are no estimates for rebels.)

In a report released on July 24, Human Rights Watch documented four instances of the use of unguided Grad rockets, which killed at least 16 civilians in and around Donetsk in nine days. While both rebels and Ukrainian forces use the rockets — descendants of World War II-era weapons — the investigation “strongly indicates that Ukrainian government forces were responsible” for the four attacks.

“Using these kinds of weapons in populated areas is a violation of the laws of war,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “International allies of the Ukrainian government — the United States, the European Union — should condemn this use and urge the government to stop.”

Ukraine’s military strongly denies responsibility for any attacks that have caused civilian deaths. Vladislav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, did not comment on the report itself, but he said that soldiers were under orders not to harm civilians.

“We are prohibited from using artillery in residential areas,” he said. “Yes we have these weapons,” he said, referring to Grads, “but we never use them in civilian areas. No way.”

But the military’s campaign against the rebels has increased the likelihood of civilian casualties given how deeply the rebels have embedded into the civilian population.

As Ukrainian troops inched toward Donetsk and Luhansk, two regional capitals with a combined population of 1.5 million, residents feared the worst, looking to what happened in Slovyansk, a small city to the north that the military took by pounding rebel positions and flattening the neighborhoods where the rebels were.

Those fears were soon realized. One of the main rebel bases in Luhansk is in a military recruitment office next to the main bus station, and it drew intense shelling, leaving power lines scattered like string over the shrapnel-torn pavement.

And in Donetsk, where Ukrainian troops have pressed forward from the north and west for weeks, the Marinka, Petrovsky and Kuibyshevsky neighborhoods have come under heavy rocket fire. The barrages against all three areas, according to Human Rights Watch, originated from positions held by the Ukrainian military. Mr. Seleznyov said he could not comment on specific events.

On July 21 in Kuibyshevsky, in a leafy area near a dental office and a library, Sergei Yakshin, 41, the man with the alarm business, was walking to his car. He never made it. A rocket exploded nearby, killing him and another man instantly. A short walk away, a different rocket hit Valentina A. Surmai, a 72-year-old pensioner who worked at a local grocery store to support her blind husband. The cook, Alla A. Vasyutina, 60, bled to death in her kitchen after a piece of shrapnel penetrated the wall of her house.

“She wanted to make us soup,” said Ms. Surmai’s son, Sergei, standing in his underwear, his eyes red. “I told her, ‘Mom, don’t go out,’” he said. He barely recognized her body in the morgue. Half her face and her left side were gone.

Her death enraged Mr. Surmai. “If they give me a gun, I’m ready to go fight,” he said. “After this, it’s either us, or them. There’s no choice now. We have to go to the end.”

A friend of Ms. Surmai, Alexandra Rud, 74, said she, like her friend, hated the rebels, but she blamed the government for Ms. Surmai’s death.

“I want to shout to the whole world,” she said, her voice shrill, as artillery boomed in the distance. “Stop it! Get out! Leave us alone!”

The violence has rearranged habits and daily routines. Konstantin, a morgue worker in Luhansk who refused to give his full name for fear of exposing himself and his family to attention, said he and his wife now sleep on a mattress stuffed into a small underground space in a garage used for repairing cars. Teatime chatter was about what survival supplies to put in their cellars, which now double as bomb shelters.

Anatoly Leonidovich, the head doctor at the Luhansk morgue, said that after a particularly vicious battle two weeks ago, he received 15 bodies, all but one twisted and torn, consistent with artillery wounds. The next day, he was still getting calls.

“Who are you looking for?” he said, speaking into a Soviet-era phone. “Is he civilian or a rebel,” he asked. (Rebels collect the bodies of their comrades and do their own paperwork, he said.) “Ah yes, I have him. Sklyarov, Vladimir, year of birth, 1973.”

Establishing responsibility for civilian deaths has been difficult. The shelling in Luhansk, for example, touched off ferocious arguments: Supporters of the government in Kiev accuse the rebels, while those who favor Russia blame the Ukrainian forces.

“Idiot!” shouted a stout woman with fiery red lipstick. She was glaring at Boris Besarab, a bespectacled security guard in a Luhansk neighborhood called Peaceful that was hit on July 14. He had been explaining why he believed that the angle of impact meant that rebels had fired the shell. “Take your glasses off,” she fumed, stalking away. “This is why Ukraine is going to hell!”

The local disputes mirror those on a larger scale, with Russia and Ukraine blaming one another for attacks that kill civilians. Civilian deaths have been at the heart of Russia’s narrative against Kiev, though rarely mentioned is the fact that that rebels cause them too.

In one case, Ukraine claimed that Russia carried out an airstrike on an apartment block in the city of Snizhne, suggesting that a plane traveled from across the border, more than 12 miles to the south. But the angle of the 10 holes punched by the bombs and the direction of the damage indicated that the bomber was flying from west to east. Some residents suggested that the target might have been a rebel base just a quarter of a mile away.

War is as much about perception as reality, and in some ways truth is powerless against what people want to believe. Most people interviewed at attack sites accused the Ukrainian forces, a pattern that bodes ill for Ukraine’s government as it tries to put the country back together again.

“Look, there’s your Poroshenko!” yelled Viktoria Y. Iotova, referring to Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, and pointing to 14 Lenin Street in Snizhne, where at least 11 civilians were killed.

“Who will answer for these human lives?” she added as she began to cry.

Piles of personal items were strewn through the streets around her. A sewing machine lay between a teacup and an old Samsung laptop. One wall of a corner apartment remained intact, shielded from the blast wave. It told of life before the bombs: potted plants on a shelf, a red teakettle atop the cupboard and a neatly ordered spice rack with two rows of six jars apiece.

There, amid the debris, a 4-year-old boy, Bogdan Yasterbov, was trapped. As a yellow crane lifted concrete blocks from the wreckage, local residents sat in shock, and the blue-eyed Bogdan screamed. It took hours before anyone heard him.

Then, as a cellphone video shows, red-faced rescue workers noticed him and yelled: “Children! Be quiet!” Men began digging. Bogdan came into view, face down in a pocket of space under the rubble.

He was carried out and laid on a stretcher, limbs limp. His bright blond hair was darkened by the dust.

Bogdan survived, but his mother, Daria, did not.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Kiev, Ukraine.

The New York Times.

‘Massive Explosive Decompression’ brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight #MH17

One of the two black boxes recovered from the crash site of the MH17 jet in Donetsk on July 22, 2014.  © AFPOne of the two black boxes recovered from the crash site of the MH17 jet in Donetsk on July 22, 2014. © AFP

(Reuters) – Analysis of the black box flight recorders from a downed Malaysian airliner show it was destroyed by shrapnel coming from a rocket blast and went down because of “massive explosive decompression”, a Ukrainian security official said on Monday.

The spokesman for Ukraine’s Security Council, Andriy Lysenko, told a news conference in Kiev the information came from experts analysing the recorders from the plane that came down in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on July 17.

Britain was tasked with downloading the data from two black boxes recovered from the crash site and handing that information over to international investigators for analysis.

Kiev and the West accuse pro-Russian rebels of shooting down the plane. Moscow says the Ukrainian government is responsible for the crash, which killed all 298 people on board.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Alison Williams)


In Ukraine’s east, Soviet-style economy withers under onslaught

By Lina Kushch, Elizabeth Piper and Natalia Zinets.A man walks past a coal mine in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 8, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/MAXIM ZMEYEVA man walks past a coal mine in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 8, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/MAXIM ZMEYEV.

(Reuters) – After pro-Russian rebels took 720 kg of explosives, 360 detonators and almost 1 km of wiring, the Skochinskiy coal mine, an ageing stalwart of the economy in Ukraine’s Donbass region, was put out of action.

Fierce fighting and rebel requisitioning have stopped work at many of the coal mines in and around the strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Without the fuel, nearby steel factories and electricity plants across Ukraine are struggling to work.

Many in Ukraine’s western and central regions see the industrial east as a burden, home to an outdated Soviet economy of monolithic factories that offer little to the rest of a country where other sectors and smaller firms are more common.

But officials say with a budget unable to finance the Ukrainian army after losing revenues from Crimea, annexed by Moscow in March, Kiev not only needs the contributions from its east but also its heavy industry, albeit in a modernised form.

“There’s a war in Donetsk and Luhansk and practically all revenue from these regions to the state budget has fallen. Plus they annexed Crimea,” said Mikhailo Noniak, deputy minister for revenue and duties at Ukraine’s tax agency.

“The reality of the financial situation is pretty bad at the moment because of Russia’s aggression. A lot of money goes to defence.”

Ukraine is virtually bankrupt, running wide external deficits and struggling to cover state wages, never mind feed and equip an army whose numbers have risen as fighting against rebels who want independence for the Donbass intensifies.

Western lender, the International Monetary Fund, has thrown a financial lifeline, stumping up $17.1 billion as part of a two-year bailout package. Kiev has received $3.2 billion so far and hopes to get an additional $1.4 billion in late August.

Oligarchs, who became wealthy in the chaos following the fall of the Soviet Union and own much of the country’s private economy, have also stepped in, with one, Ihor Kolomoisky, financing and arming several battalions fighting the rebels.

But while financing from businessmen is unsustainable, Western funding demands that a reluctant Ukrainian parliament make some tough changes to its economy, where the state has long subsidised energy bills and has a bloated state sector.

Much of that budget spending goes to its east, especially Luhansk and Donetsk, impoverished regions where a flat panorama of pot-holed roads and grassy fields is punctuated by slag piles or mining machinery.


Donetsk contributed 11.7 percent, or 170.8 billion hryvnias UAH=, to Ukrainian gross domestic product last year and Luhansk contributed just over 4 percent, at 38.9 billion hryvnias. Continue reading

Russian TV helps prosecution in Nadya Savchenko case in a Russian kangaroo court

By Halya Coynash
Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, 31, fought in eastern Ukraine in the ranks of the Aidar volunteer battalion and in June was taken prisoner by militia forces near the town of Shchastya in Luhansk Oblast. © CourtesyUkrainian pilot Nadya Savchenko, 31, fought in eastern Ukraine in the ranks of the Aidar volunteer battalion and in June was taken prisoner by militia forces near the town of Shchastya in Luhansk Oblast. © Courtesy

When a criminal trial involves a pilot taken captive by insurgents in one country and found imprisoned and facing serious criminal charges in another, questions are inevitable. Russia has thus far proven unable to credibly explain how Nadya Savchenko came to be in Russian detention and to be charged with involvement in the deaths of a Russian journalist and cameraman.  It is instead applying dubious tactics to ensure that the questions are either not asked, or not heard.  Not for the first time, Russian TV has been assigned a key role.

A Voronezh court on July 25 rejected Savchenko’s appeal against the court ruling remanding her in custody until August 31.  She is likely to soon be transferred to the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow.  The judge was unmoved by the fact that the original court’s detention order, as well as the investigators documents, refer to the Donbas region of Ukraine as “the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”.  The latter are the Kremlin-backed militants’ self-proclaimed ‘republics’ which even Russia has not officially recognized.

It is likely that the fault for such a telling mistake lies with the Investigative Committee of Russia which has been initiating ‘criminal investigations’ with a distinctly political slant for many months now.  The documents in question refer to a number of cases opened from May 30, including occasions where Russian journalists were, according to Ukraine detained for unacceptable activities and deported or, according to Russia ‘abducted’.

The defence had insisted that Savchenko be brought to the court and that the hearing be open.  The latter application was allowed, however there was only video contact with Savchenko from her cell.  Her lawyers’ application for a change of interpreter was also rejected, although there are clear grounds for concern that Savchenko’s words are being distorted.  Savchenko, for example, said that she was abducted from Ukraine with this being translated as that she was caught in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian consul was only allowed to see Savchenko after numerous attempts, and is now being stopped from visiting her again.  This could well be because he passed on her account of how she was abducted into Russia with a bag over her head and in handcuffs.  The pretext, however, is that Savchenko has already had the second visit she is allowed each month.

The supposed ‘visit’ was from a LifeNews journalist who was permitted by the investigator to interview her.

The edited transcript remains on the channel’s website under the title: “The insurgents did not shoot down the Malaysian BoeingLIfeNews took an exclusive interview of a woman who took part in a punitive operation in Ukraine and is now in the Voronezh SIZO”.

As during her interrogation by the militants who captured her around June 18, Savchenko is not cowered and denies all claims that she could have been involved in any way in the killing of unarmed journalists. There is no point in analysing particular parts of the interview since it seems likely that the tape has been carefully edited.  There is a suspiciously short amount of time given to her abduction and how she ended up in Russia. Even Savchenko’s doubts about whether the militants could have shot down the plane should be treated with caution. They come after a month held captive first by the militants then in Russia. Any access to the news over recent weeks has therefore been via Russian TV channels whose distortion of information about the shooting-down of  MH17  has itself made world headlines.

Even with manipulative editing, Savchenko creates a very good impression. Perhaps for that reason, LifeNews  took another ‘exclusive’ interview, this time of Vladimir Markin from the Investigative Committee.  This is entitled “Savchenko lived in Russia for two weeks before being detained” and begins with the presenter claiming that Savchenko when detained, “beat her breast, admitting “yes, I killed them, I killed them” and has now changed her tune.  The interviewer’s very tone makes it clear that the audience should view all denials of guilt as an attempt now to wriggle out of trouble.  Markin joins in claiming that ‘as one can see’, Savchenko contradicts herself at each point.  In fact, one cannot see anything of the sort, and there is no evidence that Savchenko ever ‘confessed”

Markin first states that Savchenko did much more than simply point out the journalists’ whereabouts.  When asked for more detail, however, he backtracks saying that other charges ‘are still being confirmed’.  He asserts that Savchenko was in Russia for two weeks and doesn’t know ‘how she escaped’ from her militant captors.  She was then, he claims, detained after she took a taxi dressed in camouflage gear.  He can’t remember why the police patrol stopped the car, perhaps she didn’t have her seatbelt on, he suggests. He alleges she said that she was a refugee and had run away from Ukraine as she didn’t agree with the new authorities’ politics.  The story is almost comically implausible, with the details clearly seen as less important than the overall task of discrediting Savchenko and casting doubt on her words.

Nadya Savchenko

LifeNews is focused on here since it provided ‘exclusive’ interviews, however the  line taken is that presented by the Russian authorities and will be identical on all mainstream Russian media.  Russians, and Ukrainians in those parts of eastern Ukraine still under militant control, have little chance of understanding how grossly they are being misled.

None of this, unfortunately, is new. Two left-wing activists Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzaev were convicted by a Moscow court last week of ‘organizing mass riots’ on May 6 2012. In October that year the Russian authorities abducted Razvozzhaev from Kyiv where he was in the process of applying for asylum and took him to Moscow. The charges laid against both men stem from allegations made, without corroboration or identification of the person supposed to have ‘exposed them’ in a scandalous ‘documentary’ entitled “Anatomy of Protest” on NTV.

The abduction in 2012 took place under the former president Viktor Yanukovych and almost certainly with the connivance of the Ukrainian authorities. Those days have gone. Savchenko is Ukrainian, was captured by the militants and handed over to the Russians against her will and is now facing charges that bear no scrutiny. The questions Russia’s investigators cannot answer urgently need to be asked – publicly and loudly. They should not stop until Nadya Savchenko is released and back in Ukraine.

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG).

Editors Note: Nadiya Savchenko trial is a farce with trumped up charges and the russians have already decided that she is guilty. This is nothing short of a medieval witch hunt with no chance of defense!

#MH17: Troops Move on Crash Site in Ukraine, Foiling Deal

Dutch police officers on Sunday in Donetsk, Ukraine. Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated PressDutch police officers on Sunday in Donetsk, Ukraine. Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press

ZUHRES, Ukraine — Just hours after the Malaysian government reached an agreement with Ukrainian separatists on Sunday over access to the crash site of a Malaysian airliner shot down in rebel territory, the Ukrainian military launched an operation to recapture the debris fields, again stalling international efforts to secure the site.

The heavy fighting threatened to torpedo hopes of a breakthrough and cause yet more delays in collecting evidence and retrieving the remaining bodies from the crash. Ukrainian security officials said they needed control over the site to prevent the pro-Russia separatists from destroying clues to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

By Sunday evening, the Ukrainian advance had blocked a road leading from the provincial capital, Donetsk, to the airplane debris northeast of Shakhtyorsk, but it remained unclear whether government troops were in control of all or part of the approximately 14 square miles of debris fields.

Videos posted online appeared to show Ukrainian armored vehicles near the site, and reporters who visited earlier Sunday said insurgents were nowhere to be seen.

The combat spread out along the road in a fluid and chaotic scene, leaving it wholly unclear who controlled what. Fragments of rockets lay on the sunbaked macadam, and columns of black smoke rose along the horizon.

One separatist commander at a checkpoint outside Shakhtyorsk, about 10 miles from the crash site, said the Ukrainians had retaken the area, and a rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, confirmed that government troops were advancing.

“The attempts to clear militia from the crash site irrefutably show Kiev is trying to destroy evidence,” he told reporters in Donetsk. His claim was apparently intended to counter earlier allegations that the rebels had been tampering with evidence to hide their own role in the downing of the plane.

Separatists seemed to be in a state of alarm, driving in convoys of buses and armored vehicles out of Donetsk toward the fighting. They controlled the road as far as the town of Zuhres.

Area of rebel activity

The Malaysian jetliner, a Boeing 777-200, was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, killing all 298 people aboard. Ukrainian and American officials say the plane was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired by the rebels. Russia and the rebels have denied any involvement and blame Ukraine.

Ukraine and the United States have said repeatedly that Russia is providing military equipment to the separatists and claim to have evidence that Russia is firing artillery and rockets on Ukrainian military positions.

On Sunday, the Obama administration stepped up its public pressure on Moscow, as the State Department released intelligence images presented as evidence that Russian forces had fired across the border.

The images were said to show charred ground on the Russian side of the border, described as evidence of rocket launches into Ukraine. Another showed artillery pieces of a type found only in the Russian military, pointed toward Ukraine. Other images showed crater impacts inside Ukraine.

It was not possible to independently verify the images. They are from DigitalGlobe, which provides high-resolution satellite images and aerial photos; they were not from American spy satellites or surveillance aircraft. Small groups of foreign police officers and forensic experts have managed to reach the crash site, but efforts to secure it with larger contingents have repeatedly fallen through.

Part of a document released by the State Department on Sunday purporting to show evidence of rocket launches from Russia into Ukraine. The images in the document, which were provided by DigitalGlobe, were not from American spy satellites or surveillance aircraft and could not be independently verified. Credit Digital Globe, via U.S. State DepartmentPart of a document released by the State Department on Sunday purporting to show evidence of rocket launches from Russia into Ukraine. The images in the document, which were provided by DigitalGlobe, were not from American spy satellites or surveillance aircraft and could not be independently verified. CreditDigital Globe, via U.S. State Department.

Earlier Sunday, the prospects of a more robust foreign presence at the crash site seemed to have improved when the office of Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia announced in an email that he had reached an agreement with Mr. Borodai “to allow a deployment of international police personnel” to enter.

After the announcement, about 30 unarmed Dutch police officers left the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv intending to reach the debris fields. But fighting stopped the officers after they reached Donetsk, said a spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The Dutch police deployment on Sunday, ordered overnight by the Ministry of Security and Justice in The Hague, reversed an earlier decision by the head of a Dutch police mission in Kharkiv. He had intended to delay movement toward the crash site until a vote on Thursday by the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev that he said would provide a “legal basis” for the deployment of foreign police officers.

The Netherlands, whose citizens accounted for around two-thirds of the crash victims, is leading an international effort to get to the bottom of what happened to Flight 17.

Retrieving the Remains of Flight MH17: Russian Roulette

The area is tactically important for the Ukrainian military, which is trying to close access to Donetsk from the east, lest separatists in the city be resupplied and reinforced from the direction of the Russian border.

Clashes flared in half a dozen towns east of Donetsk on Sunday. There was also fighting to the north, with an artillery strike in the town of Horlivka reportedly killing at least 13 civilians.

The longer the crash site remains unguarded, the smaller the chances of recovering evidence. Responding to growing reports that the wreckage and passenger items had been tampered with, Australia said Sunday that it was sending unarmed police officers to the site to prevent any further meddling. Australia lost dozens of citizens on Flight 17.

“Our objective is to get in, to get cracking and to get out,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia said at a news conference in Canberra, the capital. Australia had considered allowing some of its officers to carry weapons, but Mr. Abbott said he had decided against that.

“This is a risky mission, no doubt about that,” he said, “but all the professional advice I have is that the safest way to conduct it is unarmed as part of a police-led humanitarian mission.”

Foreign access to the site has been hampered by problems from the start, with heavily armed rebels initially restricting the movements of foreign experts. In Kiev, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said the Ukrainian troops intended to “liberate” the crash site to secure evidence.

The Ukrainian government has been loath to see foreign governments negotiate with the separatist leaders based in Donetsk, the capital of a self-declared republic that no foreign state, including Russia, has recognized. Malaysia has been particularly active in reaching out to the rebel leadership. It brokered a deal last week under which the rebels handed over the plane’s data and voice recorders, which they had seized at the crash site.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Zuhres, and Andrew Higgins from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Hong Kong, and Michelle Innis from Sydney, Australia.

The New York Times.