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Ukrainian crews scan for unexploded ordnance and landmines by the main road to Kherson, Ukraine, Nov. 16, 2022.MURAD SEZER/Reuters

Ukraine is thought to be one of the most mined countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Syria. A new report by Human Rights Watch says the Ukrainian military is almost certainly part of the problem.

The HRW report, released Tuesday morning, urges Ukraine to investigate compelling evidence that its military used rockets to spread thousands of anti-personnel landmines in and around the eastern city of Izyum when it was occupied by Russian forces. In a brutal battle, Russia gained control of Izyum in March; Ukraine regained control in September.

“Ukrainian forces appear to have extensively scattered landmines around the Izyum area, causing civilian casualties and posing an ongoing risk,” said Steve Goose, HRW’s arms division director. “Russian forces have repeatedly used anti-personnel mines and committed atrocities across the country, but this doesn’t justify Ukrainian use of these prohibited weapons.”

Ukraine signed the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (known as the Ottawa Treaty). HRW said the use of anti-personnel mines also violates international humanitarian law, since the small devices do not discriminate between soldiers and civilians.

A spokesperson for Ukraine’s Minister of Defence, Oleksii Reznikov, did not respond to requests for comment Monday morning from The Globe and Mail.

In response to questions from HRW in November, after the New York-based human-rights organization finished its Izyum investigation, Deputy Defence Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk said in a letter that Ukraine cannot comment on the types of weapons it is using until the war is over. He added that “Ukraine is a reliable member of the international community, and it fully commits to all international obligations in the sphere of mine usage. This includes the non-use of anti-personnel mines in the war.”

Mr. Polishchuk accused the Russian military of “massive use of anti-personnel mines by its armed units against Ukranian civilians” (Russia is not party to the Ottawa Treaty, nor are dozens of other countries, including the United States, China, Iran, Egypt and Israel). HRW does not dispute his claim, noting that it issued three reports in 2022 that accused the Russian military of using anti-personnel mines in many areas of Ukraine.

HRW’s mine investigation in Izyum took place between Sept. 19 and Oct. 9. Its team interviewed more than 100 people, including victims of landmines, doctors and Ukrainian demining experts. HRW said it verified 11 civilian casualties, and local health care workers said they had treated almost 50 civilians, including five children, who were apparently injured by mines during or after the Russian occupation.

The devices in question are called PFM-1 mines and have “wings” that contain about 40 grams of explosive liquid. They can be scattered by mortar, rockets or aircraft in large numbers and glide to the ground without exploding, then detonate later on contact. They are often green – and sometimes called “Green Parrots” – allowing them to blend into the landscape. They are not designed to kill but rather to maim by blowing off a foot or leg.

While it is theoretically possible that Russia, which is thought to have millions of the mines in its military stockpiles, could have spread them in and around Izyum, HRW believes they were scattered by Ukrainian forces when Russia occupied the city.

“In three locations in the Izyum area, Human Rights Watch saw how the rocket motor of an Uragan-series artillery rocket, which can be used for mine dispersal, was lodged in the ground or had hit a building in such a way that indicated it had come from the direction where Ukrainian forces controlled territory,” HRW said (Uragan artillery is used by both Ukraine and Russia).

The organization added that “more than 100 residents of Izyum and the surrounding area said that Russian forces or occupation authorities posted and distributed flyers to warn of the landmine danger. They also cleared landmines from public areas and civilians’ private property and took some mine victims to Russia for medical care – actions inconsistent with being responsible for laying the mines.”

Ukraine inherited a huge supply of anti-personnel mines after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It destroyed about 3.4 million devices, including PFM-1 versions, between 1999 and 2020. In 2021, it reported to the UN that 3.3 million PFM-1 mines still needed to be destroyed.

Mines of all varieties still cover many former battle zones around the world, killing or maiming thousands of people a year. Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, more than 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by UXOs – unexploded ordnance – most of which lay near the old demilitarized zone that separated North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Several international charities continue to hunt for UXOs in Vietnam.

One demining expert told HRW it could take “decades” to clear all the mines and UXOs from the Izyum area.

Germany announced plans on Jan. 25 to deliver heavy tanks to Ukraine, and the United States was poised to do so too, a breakthrough hailed as a decisive military boost by Kyiv and condemned by Moscow as a reckless provocation.