KYIV, Ukraine — Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that it had uncovered evidence that Ukrainian forces fired “thousands” of antipersonnel land mines into Russian-occupied territory in eastern Ukraine, in an apparent violation of Kyiv’s commitments not to use the weapons, injuring and maiming dozens of civilians.
Human Rights Watch called on Ukrainian authorities to investigate the allegations immediately.
“[There was] a whole range of evidence that we believe, when you look at it in its totality, strongly suggest that Ukraine was responsible,” Mary Wareham, advocacy director for the group’s arms division, told The Washington Post.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it “took note” of the report, which it said would be “duly studied by the competent authorities of Ukraine.”
“Ukraine, exercising its right to self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, fully implements its international obligations while Russian occupiers commit the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide of the Ukrainian people,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Investigators with Human Rights Watch visited the Izyum area shortly after the Russian withdrawal, the organization said, and interviewed more than 100 people, including victims, witnesses, first responders, doctors and Ukrainian deminers. The findings indicate that Ukrainian forces fired Uragan rockets carrying PFM land mines in nine locations.
The fist-sized, wing-shaped plastic weapons, also known as butterfly or petal mines, are often colored green or brown so they blend in with the ground. They can be triggered by pressure, such as a footstep on or nearby the unit.
Though they appeared to be aimed at Russian occupying forces, Human Rights Watch said, the mines were also found in civilian areas, landing in some cases near private homes houses or in yards. Local health-care workers told investigators they had treated about 50 local people for injuries resembling those from antipersonnel mines.
About half of the injuries involved traumatic amputations of a lower leg or foot, injuries consistent with PFM blast mines, the organization said.
One deminer said the weapons “are everywhere.” Human Rights Watch said its investigators saw unexploded mines, remnants of mines, the metal cassettes that carry the mines in rockets, and blast signatures consistent with the amount of explosive contained in the weapons.
Deminers say it could take decades to clear the area of land mines and other unexploded ordnance.
Wareham said Russian forces have used more mines in more areas across Ukraine. Human Rights Watch has published three reports on Moscow’s use of land mines during the conflict. These include “victim-activated booby traps,” in which an explosive device is connected to a corpse and detonates when the body is moved.
But the organization said Russian use of mines doesn’t absolve Ukraine of its responsibility.
“Russian forces have repeatedly used antipersonnel mines and committed atrocities across the country, but this doesn’t justify Ukrainian use of these prohibited weapons,” said Steve Goose, director of the rights group’s arms division.
Russia, unlike Ukraine, is not a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits antipersonnel mines and requires countries to destroy their stockpiles. But Moscow is still in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said, which bans antipersonnel mines because they do not discriminate between civilians and combatants.
Ukraine signed the treaty in 1999 and ratified it six years later. Officials in Kyiv have said that they destroyed more than 3 million mines that they inherited from the Soviet Union, but that more than 3 million PFM mines remain. Russia also has stockpiles of PFM mines.
The Defense Ministry told Human Rights Watch in November that it abides by its international obligations, including the prohibition on using antipersonnel mines, the organization said. But it did not address questions about PFM mine use in and around Izyum, saying that “information on the types of weapons used by Ukraine … is not to be commented on before the war ends.”
The report Tuesday reversed the organization’s earlier findings that Ukraine had not used antipersonnel land mines.
Landmine Monitor, a publication that follows efforts to abolish land mines, and which Human Rights Watch helps edit, wrote in November that “there is no independent confirmation … as of yet” that Ukraine had used land mines and that “a final assessment and attribution of use of PFM-type mines in Ukraine is not possible at this time.”
The new findings were possible, Wareham said, because Human Rights Watch representatives were able for the first time to visit the location in person.
Wareham said the organization was “glad to see Ukraine’s statement today committing to look very seriously at the findings,” and that it hoped Kyiv would “conduct a thorough investigation into what happened.”