Geneva - More than 9 000 people have been killed since the conflict in Ukraine began, the United Nations said on Wednesday, 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 September 1, following a fragile truce agreed in Minsk in February.
In its latest report on Ukraine, the rights office said that between August 16 and November 15, 47 civilians were killed and 131 injured in the conflict zones of eastern Ukraine, sharply down from the previous three-month period.
But nonetheless, at least 9 098 people, including civilians, soldiers and militia members have perished since the beginning of the conflict in mid-April 2014 until the middle of last month, with another 20 732 injured, the report said.
Fifty-two percent of the casualties since August were caused by 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, and signs posting is urgently required to warn the population about their presence," 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.
Serious rights concerns
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, while the government forces were 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.
The report stressed that "amnesty cannot be provided for individuals responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and grave human rights violations, including summary executions, torture or similar cruel inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances".
To reach a lasting peace, all sides must fully implement the Minsk Agreements, it said.
But it warned that the "continuing presence of foreign fighters", including some identified as members of the Russian military, "as well as the reported influx of heavy and sophisticated weaponry from the Russian Federation and the lack of effective control by the Government of Ukraine of the state border with the Russian Federation remain the major impediments to this solution."