GENEVA – A total of 230,000 people have fled their homes during the spiralling armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.
UNHCR spokesman Dan McNorton told reporters that the number of people who have left the conflict zone for other Ukrainian regions was now close to 100,000, while some 130,000 had crossed the border into Russia. "They are mainly from the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. Those are figures that have risen in recent weeks," McNorton said.
The numbers, dating from July 18, are the most recent available, he underlined. Ukrainian forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists in the two eastern regions for months, with both sides facing accusations of failing to keep civilians out of the line of fire. "There are a variety of security concerns and a variety of reasons for people making the decision to leave their homes," McNorton said.
Fears of being caught in the crossfire have been a major reason, he noted. The number of people who have fled the fighting but remained within Ukraine has nearly doubled from the figure of 54,000 released by the UNHCR at the end of June.
The number of refugees in Russia had then been 110,000. Claims that Russian-speakers in Ukraine are under threat have been cited regularly by the rebels and Moscow, though UN human rights probes have said there is little evidence for such fears. Those fleeing within Ukraine include at least 12,000 Muslim Tatars from the southern peninsula of Crimea.
Mainly populated by Russian speakers and long home to Russian military bases, Crimea was annexed by Moscow in March. That move came after Russian-speaking militants rose up following the removal in February of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukoyvch by a coalition of pro-Western groups and nationalists.
He was forced from power after months of protests following his last-minute decision not to sign a deal cementing the economically-embattled, ex-Soviet republic's ties with the European Union. Instead, he opted to turn to former master Moscow for economic backing, sparking uproar in the pro-Western camp.
In the space of just three months, the Ukraine conflict in the east of the country has claimed more than 1,000 lives. The toll includes the 298 people on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was downed over the east last week in an attack blamed on the rebels.
Russia denies claims that it is stoking strife by sending in men and weapons to Russified eastern Ukraine.