UN, Red Cross call for protecting civilians, vital structures in Ukraine

Stephanie Nebehay, Reuters

Posted at Feb 25 2022 04:16 AM

People take shelter in a subway station, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. Viacheslav Ratynskyi, Reuters
People take shelter in a subway station, after Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized a military operation in eastern Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 24, 2022. Viacheslav Ratynskyi, Reuters

GENEVA—Civilians and critical infrastructure such as water and power systems in Ukraine must be protected from attacks in line with the rules of war, United Nations and Red Cross officials said on Thursday as aid agencies struggled to assess damage from Russia's attack.

Ukrainian forces fought Russian invaders around nearly all of the country's perimeter after Russia launched an assault by land, sea and air on Ukraine in the biggest attack on a European state since World War Two. 

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that Russia's military action "clearly violates international law" and that protecting Ukraine's civilian population was a priority.

The UN refugee agency said that the situation in Ukraine was quickly deteriorating and appealed to neighboring countries to keep their borders open to people seeking a safe haven. 

International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer, in a statement issued after Moscow's missiles struck major Ukrainian cities including the capital Kyiv, said that all warring sides must respect international humanitarian law.

"They must refrain from attacks that violate the rules of the conduct of hostilities or prohibitions on means and methods of warfare. The use of weapons with wide area effects should be avoided in populated areas," Maurer said.

"Essential infrastructure must be spared, including water, gas and electrical systems that, for instance, provide civilian homes, schools and medical facilities with vital water and electricity supplies," he added.

Security permitting, ICRC teams would continue to repair vital infrastructure, supply health facilities with medicines and equipment, and families with food and other items, he said.

The agency, which already had some 600 aid workers across Ukraine, including 400 in the east, has been helping repair two water pumping stations in Donetsk region damaged by weekend shelling that left 1 million people without water.

"Today it has not been possible to go out and assess damages or provide humanitarian support because the security situation has not allowed it," Martin Schuepp, ICRC regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, told Reuters in an interview at ICRC headquarters.

"As soon as the situation allows, it will be our priority to go and assess the situation of hospitals, water infrastructure and other critical infrastructure to see how we can best help," he said.

Since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and ensuing conflict, the ICRC has been delivering vital aid supplies on both sides of the "line of contact" that divides eastern Ukraine and many families.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Grant McCool)

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