Russian soldiers fired on Ukrainian civilian vehicles, says Human Rights Watch

Russian forces have fired on civilian vehicles in three separate incidents in Ukraine’s Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, killing six civilians and wounding three, Human Rights Watch said May 2. In one case, they pulled a man from a van and summarily executed him.

“Russian soldiers at checkpoints opened fire on passing vehicles without any apparent effort to verify whether the occupants were civilians,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants is a constant as is the prohibition on targeting civilians, whether in their homes, on the streets, or in their cars.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed nine witnesses who were each present during one of the three incidents, including two who were wounded in these attacks. Researchers visited the sites of the three incidents and examined the four cars that were fired upon. Witnesses say that there were no Ukrainian forces in the vicinity at the time.

The large number of civilian vehicles currently disabled on roads in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions with bullet holes, burn marks, and other signs of destruction suggests that Russian forces have also harmed other civilians in similar unlawful attacks. Russian forces should respect civilians trying to flee hostilities and facilitate the delivery of impartial humanitarian aid for civilians through territory under their control.

Two of the incidents took place in Hostomel, a town about 20 kilometers northwest of Kyiv. Russian forces tried to secure the area on the first day of their invasion on February 24, 2022, and to seize control of the town’s military airport. Russian forces then occupied the area for much of March, before pulling out of the Kyiv region on March 31.

On February 28, Russian forces opened fire on two vehicles carrying nine civilians who were trying to flee the area. On March 3, they shot at a vehicle with four men who were going to negotiate delivery of humanitarian aid. The third incident took place in the village of Nova Basan, in Chernihiv region, 70 kilometers east of central Kyiv, when Russian forces shot at a civilian van carrying two men, injuring one of them. Soldiers pulled the second man from the van and summarily executed him, while the injured man escaped.

Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians may never be the deliberate target of attacks. Parties to an armed conflict must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects, and not carry out attacks that fail to discriminate between combatants and civilians. 

Anyone who orders or deliberately commits such acts, or aids and abets them, is responsible for war crimes. Commanders of forces who knew or had reason to know about such crimes but did not attempt to stop them or punish those responsible are criminally liable for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility.

Russia should conduct impartial, thorough, and transparent investigations into these killings and should compensate victims of any unlawful attacks.

“These incidents are indicative of Russian forces’ failure to abide by their obligations to always distinguish civilians and to minimize harm to them,” Wille said. “The Russian military has an obligation to investigate these incidents, hold those responsible to account, and ensure these kinds of killings cease.”

Photo credit: iStock/ Oleg Elkov

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