Human Rights Watch called on Ukrainian authorities to immediately investigate the allegations.
“[There was] the body of evidence we believe, taken as a whole, strongly suggests that Ukraine was responsible,” Mary Wareham, director of advocacy for the group’s weapons division, told The Washington Post.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday it had “taken note” of the report, which it said would be “due consideration by competent Ukrainian authorities”.
“Ukraine, exercising its right to self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter, is fully fulfilling its international obligations, while the Russian occupiers are committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide of the Ukrainian people,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
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Human Rights Watch investigators visited the Izyum district shortly after Russia’s withdrawal, the organization said, and interviewed more than 100 people, including victims, witnesses, first responders, doctors and Ukrainian deminers. The findings show that Ukrainian forces launched Uragan missiles with PFM landmines at nine locations.
The fist-sized, wing-shaped plastic weapons, also known as butterfly or petal mines, are often green or brown in color so they blend in with the ground. They can be caused by pressure, such as stepping on or near the device.
Although they appeared to be aimed at Russian occupation forces, Human Rights Watch said, landmines were also found in civilian areas, in some cases landing near the homes or yards of private homes. Local health workers told investigators they treated about 50 local people for injuries similar to those from land mines.
About half of the injuries were traumatic amputations of the lower leg or foot, injuries related to PFM blast mines, the organization said.
One deminer said weapons were “everywhere”. Human Rights Watch said its investigators saw unexploded mines, remnants of mines, metal cartridges used to carry mines in rockets, and blast signatures consistent with the amount of explosives in the weapons.
Deminers say clearing the area of landmines and other unexploded ordnance could take decades.
Wareham said Russian forces have used more mines in more areas of Ukraine. Human Rights Watch has published three reports on Moscow’s use of landmines during the conflict. These include “victim-activated traps” in which an explosive device is attached to a corpse and detonates when the body is moved.
However, the organization said that the use of Russian mines does not absolve Ukraine of responsibility.
“Russian forces have repeatedly used anti-personnel mines and committed atrocities across the country, but that does not justify the use of these banned weapons by Ukrainians,” said Steve Goose, director of the rights group’s arms division.
Russia, unlike Ukraine, has not signed the 1997 Convention. The Mine Ban Treaty, which bans anti-personnel mines and requires countries to destroy their stockpiles. But Moscow is still in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said, which bans anti-personnel mines because they do not discriminate between civilians and combatants.
Ukraine signed the agreement in 1999 and ratified it six years later. Officials in Kiev said they had destroyed more than 3 million mines they inherited from the Soviet Union, but more than 3 million PFM mines remained. Russia also has reserves of PFM mines.
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The Defense Ministry told Human Rights Watch in November that it was complying with its international obligations, including a ban on the use of anti-personnel mines, the organization said. However, it did not address questions about the use of PFM mines in and around Izyum, saying that “information about the types of weapons used by Ukraine … should not be commented on until the end of the war.”
The report released on Tuesday overturned the organization’s previous findings that Ukraine had not used anti-personnel mines.
Landmine Monitor, a publication that tracks landmine eradication efforts and is edited by Human Rights Watch, wrote in November that “there is no independent confirmation that Ukraine has used landmines and that “a definitive assessment and attribution of PFM-type mines in Ukraine is currently not possible.
Wareham said the new discoveries were made possible because Human Rights Watch representatives were able to visit the site in person for the first time.
Wareham said the organization was “pleased to see today’s statement from Ukraine, which commits to taking the findings very seriously” and expects Kyiv to “conduct a thorough investigation into what happened.”