Russia's forced transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children to areas under its control amounts to a war crime, UN investigators said Thursday, adding that they are probing allegations of genocide in the Ukraine conflict.
Presenting their first report, the high-level team of investigators said they had determined that Russian authorities had committed "a wide range of war crimes" since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 -- and also warned of possible crimes against humanity.
But Erik Mose, chairman of the Commission of Inquiry (COI), said that so far they "have not found that there has been a genocide within Ukraine".
Asked about specific accusations of genocide, including the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to areas under Russian control, Mose said: "We are absolutely aware of these possibilities, and we will pursue this" if the commission's mandate is prolonged.
The investigators' report did however conclude that the forced deportations of Ukrainian children "violate international humanitarian law, and amount to a war crime".
According to Kyiv, 16,221 Ukrainian children had been deported to Russia as of last month.
The investigators said they could not verify the figures but said they had documented that Russian officials had taken measures to place transferred Ukrainian children in institutions and foster homes, and to give them Russian citizenship.
The report pointed to a decree signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin facilitating the granting of Russian citizenship to some categories of children.
- 'Pattern of torture' -
The report emphasised that with few exceptions, "international humanitarian law prohibits the evacuation of children by a party to the armed conflict".
The investigators said they had reviewed in detail incidents concerning the transfer of 164 children, aged four to 18, from the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kherson.
They said parents and children had spoken of youngsters being informed by Russian social services that they would be placed in foster families or adopted, and said children "expressed a profound fear of being permanently separated" from relatives.
The report highlighted numerous other Russian violations in Ukraine that it said amounted to war crimes, including widespread attacks on civilians and infrastructure, killings, torture and rape and other sexual violence.
It also said Moscow could be responsible for the even more serious "crimes against humanity", pointing to the wave of Russian attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure that began last October, and recommended further investigations.
The commission also pointed to a "widespread pattern of torture and inhuman treatment committed by Russian authorities" in areas under their control, including applying electricity to genitals, hanging detainees from ceilings with their hands tied, suffocating with plastic bags, rape and sexual violence.
- 'Systematic and widespread' -
"Russian authorities used torture in a systematic and widespread manner," the report said, indicating that "Russian authorities may have committed torture as crimes against humanity".
The investigators said they had also tried to determine whether the massive bombing and months-long siege of Ukraine's southeastern city of Mariupol before it fell to the Russians last May might constitute a crime against humanity.
But without access to the Donetsk region, "it does not have a sufficient basis to make such determination and recommends further investigations", it said.
The commission was created last year, and the Human Rights Council will decide next month whether to extend its one-year mandate.
For their report, the investigators said they had visited 56 cities, towns and settlements and had inspected sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture, as well as weapons remnants.
They said they had interviewed 595 people and consulted documents, photographs, satellite images and videos.
In preliminary findings last September, the investigators had already accused Russia of committing war crimes on a "massive scale" in Ukraine but said it was too soon to prove crimes against humanity.
The investigators said Thursday that they had also documented "a small number" of violations committed by Ukrainian armed forces, including "two incidents that qualify as war crimes," including the likely use of cluster munitions.
© Agence France-Presse
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