Ukraine Day 836: LIVE UPDATES BELOW.
Yesterday’s live coverage of the Ukraine conflict can be found here.
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Clouds of smoke after an artillery strike near separatist-held “Shakhta” on March 31 near Avdeyevka. “At left, in the distance, a tall smokestack marks the location of a water-filtration plant caught in the crossfire.” (Pete Kiehart/For The Washington Post)
For some time, one key focus for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine has been the security and repair of key infrastructure, like water treatment plants, that are vital to civilians who are trapped in the conflict zones. However, now the the head of the monitoring mission is warning that Russian-backed fighters have dug in around a key water treatment plant near Avdeyevka, and the destruction of the facility could release huge amounts of chemicals, including concentrating chlorine, and trigger “an environmental disaster.”
The Washington Post reports:
More than a ton of chlorine, which in concentrated forms is highly toxic, arrives daily at the plant. Damage to storage containers could expose up to 20,000 people to serious health problems, according to Voda Donbassa, which operates the facility.
Ukrainian commanders have forbidden their soldiers to return fire from separatists dug in around the plant, recognizing the magnitude of that risk as well as the prospect of a public-relations disaster for Kiev.
“The separatists use the water-filtration plant as cover to launch attacks on us,” said Vlad Yushkevich, 41, a platoon commander in Ukraine’s 58th Mechanized Brigade, which is stationed on the hillside opposite the plant. “We’re banned from firing back. The enemy knows this and uses it to his advantage.”
As fighting surges again in Ukraine, an environmental disaster looms
Land mines and sniper fire, tank traps and unexploded shells have shut down Highway 20, the main artery into eastern Ukraine's separatist stronghold of Donetsk. But despite the upheavals caused by two years of war, ordinary life along the route has struggled on. As violence surges again, that could change.
The leaders of the Russian-backed fighters have highlighted their desire to recapture Avdeyevka, a town near Donetsk which has been the epicenter of much of the fighting for many months. As we reported earlier today, heavy artillery has been spotted firing in the area held by Russian-backed fighters today, seen in video by an OSCE drone in the area before it was destroyed near Gorlovka to the north. This artillery is deployed near civilian residences, in an attempt to prevent Ukraine from returning fire. By firing from areas near the water treatment plant, Russian-backed fighters are using an even more sophisticated method of employing human shields to give themselves an edge.
— James Miller
As we reported earlier today, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has passed bills on amendments to the constitution and the judiciary.
The move was welcomed by many international diplomats, but was criticised by two of Ukraine’s political parties.
Now Nadiya Savchenko, who had initially supported the measures, has come out against them and co-authored a draft bill to delay their signing into law.
Savchenko said that she had changed her mind on the bill after reading it in full.
Echoing points made earlier today by the Samopomich party, she told the 112 television channel this evening that the Rada had not been given sufficient time to review the 200-page bill.
Instead, she suggested, MPs should be given one or two weeks to go over the document and suggest amendments.
Savchenko added that as some deputies in the Rada were either not paying attention or were “volunteers or people who are not sufficiently politically educated,” such complex bills should not be rushed into law.
In comments published on the Batkivshchyna party website, Savchenko said that politicians should not “tamper with the constitution” during wartime.
There were suggestions, based on photographs that appear to show Savchenko remonstrating with Batkivshchyna leader Yulia Tymoshenko on the Rada floor, that the two had argued on the matter.
However Savchenko told 112 that there had been no argument but expressions of mutual frustration and surprise at the processing of the bill.
Meanwhile Deputy Rada Speaker Oksana Syroid, a member of the Samopomich party, added her support to delaying the bill, telling reporters that, in addition to unclear formulae and mechanisms included in the bill, there were greater problems in that the reform of the judiciary would still depend too much on the government.
“The main risk. Unfortunately, is that there is no faith in the integrity of the institutions which would be responsible for the implementation of the judicial reform. It is true that there is a huge deficit of trust in the President. And while the influence of this on the judicial system will decrease, it will still remain in part. There is also distrust of local government, which is today still formed from the judges themselves.”
— Pierre Vaux
Daniel Baer, the US Ambassador to the OSCE, reports that another of the organization’s drones has been brought down over separatist-controlled Gorlovka.
This is the second such incident in a week.
On Friday morning last week, another UAV used for long-range monitoring by the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) was lost on the southwestern outskirts of the town.
Baer writes that today’s loss means that the SMM no longer possess any long-range drones with which to monitor ceasefire violations or deployments of weaponry near the front line in the Donbass.
The SMM also reported the presence of significant quantities of armour and artillery, including five Grad multiple-launch rocket systems, in Donetsk city.
Furthermore, the deputy chief monitor of the SMM, Alexander Hug, told reporters this morning that on May 28 the group had received reports and seen evidence of Russian-backed fighters using the rooftops of residential buildings in the Kuybyshev district of Donetsk as firing positions:
This is not the first time INTER has been harassed by those who are unhappy with its content. The TV channel, widely seen as pro-Russian in its editorial slant, is owned by Dmytro Firtash – wealthy oligarch and friend of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. Firtash lives outside Ukraine as he is wanted on suspicion of bribery.
In February, activists from the far-right Azov organization blocked access to the channel’s office in protest of its pro-Kremlin content:
After the channel showed a group of Russian performers on its New Year’s Eve celebration broadcast, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Alexander Turchynov called for the cancelling of INTER’s broadcast license, claiming that the channel is consistently used to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda.
Earlier this week, a document-dump reportedly showed how the Party of Regions, the political party of Yanukovych, used hidden money to buy influence with the police as well as various media outlets:
Ukraine Today notes that INTER TV was snagged in the documents as having been a recipient of some of that dirty money:
The expenses invested in the politics are itemized, with a total cost amounting to more than USD 66 million. The Party of Regions members spent the money on ‘the Party needs’ for less than six months in 2012 – everything ranging from buying the electoral votes to ordering custom-made interviews and reports on major Ukraine’s TV channels “INTER” and “ICTV”.
The list of those involved is striking and includes: both former and current MPs, ex-ministers, members of the Central Election Commission, top managers of TV channels, heads of polling agencies and political strategists.
— James Miller
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) has released video footage showing heavy artillery in use in territory controlled by Russian-backed fighters on the night of May 29, near Donetsk.
The video shows two 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled, 152 mm howitzers deployed in Mineralnoye, northeast of Donetsk city.
The danger presented by the very location of this deployment, which is a clear violation of the Minsk agreement, is made clear when two blasts are recorded near the artillery position, presumably as a result of Ukrainian fire.
According to the SMM, both self-propelled guns are deployed just 100 metres from a residential area, meaning any incoming fire on their positions, which would be targeted as a response to any outbound fire, could fall on civilians.
Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has passed a key judicial reform bill which should alleviate some criticism about endemic corruption that the government has struggled to fight since the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.
Interfax-Ukraine reports that the bill takes the power of moving judges out of the presidency and eliminates the five-year term limit which was criticized as encouraging judges to play politics in order to keep their jobs:
The law establishes a procedure of selecting and appointing judges. The Higher Qualification Commission of Judges holds a qualification examination, verification of candidates within the law to combat corruption, as well as a tender for vacant positions of judge. The commission puts applicants forward to the Higher Council of Justice, which decides on nominating the candidate to the president of Ukraine for appointment. According to the law, a judge of the Court of Appeals can be a person who confirmed professional ability on the results of qualification evaluation, with experience of judicial work of 5 years, research experience in the field of law of not less than 7 years, professional experience of lawyer or conducting defense in criminal prosecution for at least 7 years.
The law establishes the powers of judges, appointed for five years prior to the entry into force of this act, will terminate with the completion of the term for which they were appointed. Upon completion of their powers, they can be appointed as a judge on the results of a tender to be conducted in a manner prescribed by this law.
“This is an important point, which stipulates that all the judges, who were appointed to the post for five years, will be on general grounds put forward to the competition and, if approved, may continue to hold their post,” head of the legal policy and justice committee Ruslan Kniazevych said.
Reuters reports that the bill had wide support in the Rada, as 335 MPs voted for it, 35 more than the minimum needed to change the constitution. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also supports the bill:
“There is no more important reform than judicial reform,” President Petro Poroshenko told parliament. “This is proof that the country is being reformed.”
The reform package should please many of Ukraine’s allies and financial backers in the West. Before the vote, Pedro Agramunt, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), called for the Rada to pass the bill. UkrInform reports:
According to Agramunt, the Assembly has repeatedly stressed that reform of the judiciary system is needed to consolidate the rule of law in Ukraine and to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions. I
“Its success is essential for the effective completion of reforms in other sectors, as well as to restore public confidence in the work of judges and the courts,” he noted.
In addition, according to the PACE president, the successful completion of judicial reform cannot be achieved without a solid constitutional framework.
PACE President calls on Ukrainian parliament to support judicial reform – Ukrinform News
31.05.2016 16:11 146 Pedro Agramunt, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has called on the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine to vote on constitutional amendments relating to the reform of the judiciary system, according to a statement issued today.
However there was opposition within the Rada.
No one from Samopomich, and only one from the Radical Party voted in favour of the amendments.
Samopomich MP Yaroslav Markevich told Ukrainska Pravda that he did not think it right for the Rada to pass a bill of more than 50 pages of text on the day of its first reading.
In a statement published on the party’s website, Samopomich leader Oleh Berezyuk said that while they saw “some good decisions in the bill, in particular the idea of granting the capability to relieve some serving judges and appoint new ones,” they disagreed with several points:
– The opaque and monopolized procedure for appointing new judges.
– Lawyers’ monopoly on the right to represent people in courts.
– The three-year postponement of the ratification of the Rome Statute [of the International Criminal Court].
– The absolutely unintelligible wording of the formula: “the prosecutor’s office will organize investigators’ work.” Wording of which the meaning is unclear must not be written down in the constitution, as this will inevitably lead to abuse.
Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko had said earlier that his faction would vote for the amendments if their own proposals were considered, however with the vote going ahead immediately, he withdrew his MPs from the session hall.
— James Miller, Pierre Vaux
The Ukrainian military reports a surge in fighting yesterday, claiming 51 attacks by Russian-backed fighters across the front line.
Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, military spokesman for the Presidential Administration, told reporters that two Ukrainian soldiers had been wounded, one in Troitskoye, east of Bakhmut (formerly Artyomovsk), the other in Zaytsevo, north of Gorlovka.
According to this morning’s ATO Press Center report, Russian-backed fighters last night attempted to break through Ukrainian lines near Troitskoye and Maryinka, a western suburb of Donetsk.
The military claims that both attacks were repelled by Ukrainian fire.
Reports on social media do indicate that there was fighting in this area last night.
Twitter user @loogunda translates some of these reports:
This video, purportedly filmed in Maryinka and uploaded this morning, captures the sound of small-arms fire:
There was also heavy fighting to both the north and south of Donetsk city.
To the north, the ATO Press Center reports that Ukrainian positions near Avdeyevka were attacked with 82 mm mortars, grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and small arms.
Above Avdeyevka, Russian-backed fighters reportedly fired 23 120 mm mortar rounds at positions outside Novoselovka Vtoraya.
In the eastern Makeyevka suburb, which is under separatist-control, social media users reported movements of military hardware:
In the south, there were reports of fighting near the Donetsk-Mariupol highway, as well as in the area around the port city itself.
On the highway, the Ukrainian military reports that Russian-backed fighters fired on their positions near Novotroitskoye with ZU-23 anti-aircraft artillery.
Shelling was also reported in neighbouring, separatist-held Dokuchaevsk.
The pro-separatist Donetsk News Agency (DAN) reports, citing a “source in the security services of the [self-declared] Donetsk People’s Republic,” that Ukrainian forces last night fired both 120 and 82 mm mortar rounds on Dokuchaevsk, as well as the northern outskirts of Donetsk.
In total, the source claimed, Ukrainian troops fired 230 mortar rounds in the Donetsk region.
Closer to Mariupol, the Ukrainian military reports attacks near Talakovka, Shirokino, Vodyanoye and Gnutovo, where three soldiers were killed by mortar fire on May 29.
The bodies of those three soldiers – Sergei Khoroshun, Aleksandr Shaposhnik and Denis Bogdanov – were bade farewell to in a public ceremony in Mariupol yesterday.