Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, February 3, 2017 – Donbass, Syria, Libya, Yemen,

From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation

February 3, 2017


The situation in Donbass


In the early hours of February 3, Donetsk came under massive rocket attacks from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Dozens of strikes from heavy large-caliber weapon systems, including Uragan and Grad multiple rocket launchers, were delivered against residential areas. Several civilians were killed or injured. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that there are children among the injured. Of course, destruction was caused. Nothing can justify this barbarous raid. By these actions, Kiev has grossly violated not only the Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of August 12, 1949 but also all moral norms. Only vandals could bomb a sleeping city and kill innocent people. We have no other definition for the people who carried out this nighttime raid.

It is enough to watch morning news bulletins to understand the extent of the horror that the residents of this region experienced last night. But not the Ukrainian media. There is a clear connection with official Kiev there, involving the use of propaganda as a weapon and a method of warfare against civilians. Kiev attempts to demonstrate the unity of its country and its people by using heavy artillery against sleeping residential areas, against civilians.

Today, Kiev not only has failed to express concern over this new round of the crisis and its humanitarian consequences, or to accept any responsibility for what is going on, but is boasting about the actions by its Armed Forces in Donbass without any qualms, even using the rostrum of the UN Security Council, where Ukraine assumed chairmanship on February 1. I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that Ukraine’s permanent representative to the UN Vladimir Yelchenko stated that the events around Avdeyevka have demonstrated the power and capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The capability to bomb civilians and children in their sleep? There is no need to demonstrate these capabilities any further. Everyone already knows about them. You’d do better to show your ability to establish at least some contact with the people who you describe as your citizens. All of this is taking place amid Kiev’s constant accusations against the DPR and the LPR. Based on Mr Yelchenko’s statement, Kiev openly talks about the successes of its Armed Forces. This is in effect an admission that shows who is behind this new round of tension in Donbass and who is violating the Minsk agreements. These are no longer violations, this is mockery of the Minsk agreements and the Package of Measures, among others. I would like to reiterate that the weapon systems used by Kiev are completely prohibited under the aforementioned documents and agreements.

Earlier this week we already expressed our concern over the serious worsening of the situation in Donbass. In this connection, on January 31, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement and the Russian leadership made a comment.

I would like to remind that the conflict has escalated along the contact line north of Donetsk, as well as in the Mariupol area. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have made new attempts to breach the line of contact and seize so-called gray zones and other territories in Donbass. These attempts were repulsed by militia forces.

That the escalation of the situation was initiated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces – in addition to the fact that this was reported in the media and was all but openly admitted by Mr Yelchenko – was recorded by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Its video cameras registered the first mass strikes originating from the northwest and west, that is, the positions of Ukrainian security forces. What’s more, tank guns, artillery systems and multiple rocket launchers were used. To reiterate, all of these weapon systems are prohibited by the Minsk Package of Measures. According to the mission’s February 1 report, the total number of explosions registered the day before was an all-time high. There were over 10,000 explosions, including more than 9,000 near Avdeyevka and Yasinovataya, north of Donetsk.

The OSCE mission reported civilian casualties in Donetsk suburbs. OSCE monitors themselves were also at risk during these events.

We urge the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to conduct objective and impartial monitoring of the situation in Donbass and other parts of Ukraine, in keeping with its mandate. The mission’s monitoring is not art for art’s sake, not work for the sake of work. These materials should have concrete results. The international community as a whole should act on the basis of the information that is provided. How much more does the obvious need to be demonstrated? How much longer must it be explained what we have been trying to explain for so many years? Stop killing your own citizens. We appeal to Kiev and the world community as a whole: you are so concerned about the fate of civilians everywhere, in regions that are not connected to Europe, that are separated by seas, by long distances, that you fail to see what is taking place in Europe itself. For two years now Europeans have been killing Europeans, and all of this is happening with the approval of the Europeans themselves. This is a disgrace to modern-day Europe. How can you possibly fail to understand this? You have protected Ukraine for so many years, [so] you are directly responsible for it. Where are you? Where are you hiding? Thanks to BBC footage (it should be given credit for this) we can see the mind-boggling images of tanks and heavy weapon systems being positioned near civilian facilities. Look at how this footage ends: representatives of the Ukrainian Armed Forces stand around laughing, discussing something; presumably they are preparing for nighttime bombing attacks. The last episode in this video is totally beyond good and evil. Their representative stands, bending over an OSCE representative and telling him something. What is there to tell? Everything is out there to see: tanks using civilians as a human shield. And then you will say that Ukrainian civilians “on the other side” are being killed. What are you doing? Are you blind? It seems as if nobody sees this and they keep saying that Russia violates the Minsk agreements. Do you have any conscience? Do the children of Donbass not exist for Europeans? We have heard so often Europeans talk about the situation in Syria and Aleppo. Donbass is closer to you. Are you not seeing them at all? Or are they not the children to be concerned about? Are you usually concerned about other children? The whole world watched the account of the Aleppo girl. No, the Donbass children do not have accounts, because they do not engage in propaganda. They simply live and suffer, while Europe could not care less about what is happening on its territory. You have stated so often that Ukraine is part of Europe and that Ukraine is close to the European community. Do not abandon those you took so long to befriend.


Reporters under artillery fire in Donetsk


We are deeply concerned about reporters’ safety in this region.

On January 31, the NTV channel crew, RT video agency stringer Miroshnikov, Lifenews cameraperson Chuprina, and a correspondent from the Donetsk News Agency came under fire from Ukrainian armed forces artillery in the Kiev District of Donetsk. We believe the list is incomplete. Two reporters were wounded. Russia’s Investigative Committee is looking into the circumstances of this incident as part of a criminal investigation into illegal warfare tactics.

We consider this incident a gross violation of international humanitarian laws and standards. Notably, it is our Western colleagues who always refer to reporters as a category in need of more rights and legal tools to ensure their safety. No one noticed that the reporters were fired at? Again? The most cynical part is that Kiev is currently hosting a themed conference attended by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. I’m just wondering, will no one notice this time, too, that both Russian and other media representatives were fired at? I repeat, we consider this incident a gross violation of international humanitarian laws and standards, under which media workers in an armed conflict zone are considered civilians and have the highest degree of legal protection.

Once again, we have to state with regret the absence of a response to non-compliance with the commitments to ensure the safety of reporters on behalf of specialised intergovernmental organisations. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic didn’t consider it necessary to publicly condemn the incident. We are not talking about other representatives of various international organisations, who are invariably up in the arms when it comes to other conflicts. The shelling of the reporters was not posted on the website of the Council of Europe for the Protection of Journalism and the Safety of Journalists. Apparently, they are still busy looking for Russian hackers.

We are convinced that such flagrant violations of the rights of media workers, especially in conflict areas, should not be ignored by the relevant international organisations. Once again, we are waiting for an objective assessment of what happened by the participants of a conference, which is taking place, by a dreadful confluence of circumstances, in Kiev under the auspices of the OSCE.


The situation in Syria


The cessation of hostilities established in Syria with the mediation of Russia and Turkey on December 30, 2016 continues to hold, with rare violations which are the exception rather than the rule.

We repeat that the cessation of hostilities does not apply to ISIS, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) or other terrorist groups, and fighting against them continues.

On January 28, Syrian government forces regained control of the only source of drinking water at Ain Al-Fiji outside of Damascus. On January 29, the army command announced the completion of the operation in Wadi Barada, including Ain Al-Fiji. According to available information, a pacification agreement was reached with the militants fighting there following negotiations. Those willing to lay down their arms will take advantage of an amnesty, and the so-called “die-hards” and their families will be evacuated to Idlib. Military engineers began de-mining the aqueduct and the surrounding areas. Repair crews witnessed the destruction of about 85 per cent of the infrastructure at the Ain Al-Fiji water pumping station and related equipment and power units. Fresh water supply to Damascus is expected to be resumed in full within a few days.

The Syrian armed forces and militias continue to drive ISIS out of towns and villages. Recently, eight towns were liberated: Bijan, Tell Bijaniya, Sarda, al-Qlea, Hirbet al-Tuba and Qsir in the Province of Aleppo and Murhatan and Tudmoriya in the Homs Province. According to the Russian Defence Ministry, Syrian government troops have liberated 29 towns and villages since January 1. According to the Centre for Reconciliation, a total of 913.1 square kilometres of Syrian land has been liberated since January 1.

Following the International Meeting on Syria in Astana, a rift developed in the ranks of the anti-government illegal armed formations. Terrorists from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) launched a massive attack against the armed opposition groups which sent their representatives to the forum in Astana. In this situation, some of the so-called “moderate opposition” groups requested protection from Ahrar al-Sham, as the most powerful group that claims neutrality in the conflict between Nusra and Astana meeting participants.

Meanwhile, the gangs whose ringleaders wanted to continue the armed fight against the government began to actively swear allegiance to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. To unite their supporters, Nusra created a new entity called the Levant Liberation Association, whose militants entered the fight against Ahrar Al-Sham in an attempt to drive the latter from the areas in the vicinity of the Syrian-Turkish border. Those who until recently considered and declared themselves comrades-in-arms, have now become rivals, and are desperately fighting for supply channels for arms and other resources.

The situation outside the town of Deir ez-Zor, which is surrounded by ISIS, remains tense. The terrorists are launching defiant attacks on a military airfield that is cut off from the town. The Syrian armed forces are sending in more troops by air to Deir ez-Zor. Russian Aerospace Force and Syria’s Air Force are delivering massive missile and bomb strikes on ISIS positions.

We took note of the statements by representatives of the political and armed Syrian opposition, in which they are trying to anticipate the outcome of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva held under the auspices of the UN, which are planned to be resumed on February 20. Again, we are hearing ultimatums as preconditions for the opposition to come to the Geneva talks. The part where they demand for UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura to apologise for his words, in which he expressed his willingness to form an opposition delegation in the event the opposition doesn’t do so before February 8, deserves a special mention. On our part, we fully support Staffan de Mistura’s resolute commitment to an early resumption of intra-Syrian contacts in Geneva. We consider any attempts to protract or delay them to be unacceptable.


The humanitarian situation in Yemen


The humanitarian situation in Yemen remains grave, if not catastrophic, which would better reflect the ongoing events under the current conditions. Since March 2015, the military clashes between the sides in Yemen, with the direct involvement of the Saudi-led coalition, have resulted in at least 7,500 deaths and over 40,000 wounded. Over 80 per cent of the country’s population – or about 19 million people – are in need of humanitarian aid. Two million Yemeni citizens have become internally displaced people, not counting tens of thousands of refugees.

There is a massive famine, with 97 per cent of children suffering acute malnutrition. According to reports from members of UN humanitarian missions, there are increasing instances of cases when parents with many children, unable to feed all of them, have to choose one to feed, while the others starve to death. And this is happening at the beginning of the 21st century!

Air strikes have inflicted immense damage to Yemen’s civilian infrastructure, destroying schools, hospitals and transport facilities. Due to the ongoing illegal air blockade and unlawful hindering of sea transport, neither food nor medications can be delivered to the country. The operations at the port of Al Hudaydah, Yemen’s main sea gate, have been brought to a standstill. The work of the country’s main airport in Sana’a has been halted as well. There is an acute shortage of medications, with many Yemeni citizens dying of curable diseases.

In this context, we are particularly alarmed and indignant about the lack of an adequate response and attention to the unprecedented tragedy in Yemen from the international humanitarian and human rights community, especially given the hysterical statements as regards the situation in Syria. Sadly, this has become a typical reaction from the Western mainstream. They choose to see what is advantageous and where it is necessary to hush up their own efforts, which for many years have been taken to derail security and stability, and fail to see the suffering of other people – in this case, much more suffering people – if there is no interest in doing so. This is their ‘humanitarian law.’ We are convinced that in this situation it is inappropriate to be guided by political considerations and that double standards are unacceptable. These are not even double standards. It is impossible to ignore such figures when millions of people are involved.

For our part, we will continue to closely follow the situation in Yemen and give all-out assistance to the work of international, above all UN humanitarian agencies in that country. We cannot allow the tragedy in Yemen to get lost amid other conflicts that are shattering the Middle East and North Africa.


The situation in Libya                  


A couple of days ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry received questions from the publication Politico regarding Russia’s foreign policy on Libya. Let me specify what kinds of questions were posed. Considering Russia’s global lead in resolving the crisis in Syria, does Russia plan to play a leading role in Libya? Does Russia back the power ambitions of General Khalifa Haftar? Does it view his role in the Libyan settlement as political or military in nature? What is Russia’s vision of a plan to stabilise the situation in Libya? Does Russia continue to support the internationally recognised government in Tripoli? We promptly gave Politico detailed answers to all those questions. We did not cherish hope that our position would be reflected fully. But we certainly did not count on what we got in the end. Naturally, the article that followed could be called thematic, in tune with the mainstream. Of the “Russians did it” variety, as I would call it. Given the media harm that the above publication did to us, in spite of the fact that we strove to observe professional and ethical norms while communicating with them, I would like to spell out our answers to its questions, so that mass media and the public could hear Russia’s position on Libya directly from us, rather than from a media outlet which has completely distorted all that is happening on the Libyan track of Russia’s foreign policy.

We have been closely watching the developments in Libya, something you probably already know. Here is an interesting fact. We spoke out on the Libyan issue so many times, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke about this so many times, we published detailed commentaries on all our resources, and yet Politico does not see this. Why? I repeat, they did not even see the answers that were prepared specially for them.

We cannot but be concerned over the ongoing confrontation between Tripoli and Tobruk that has led to the virtual paralysis of the entire system of government. As a result of this, socioeconomic problems are becoming worse. Amid the power vacuum, the presence of the ISIS and Al Qaeda continues in some districts, and associated local extremist groups also remain active.

We are not indifferent to the fate of Libya. Our absolute priority is to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of that country. We want Libya to overcome the protracted crisis as soon as possible, to become again a prosperous state, relying on strong government institutions, efficient army and law-enforcement agencies, and to regain the status of an important regional player.

That is why we welcomed the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement on national reconciliation on December 17, 2015, in Skhirat, Morocco. We also supported the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2259, which enshrined the Skhirat agreements as the key element in settling the Libyan crisis. That said, I would like to recall that we initiated the provisions providing for an inclusive political process.

Over one year has passed since then, but the situation has not changed for the better. The Presidential Council and the Government of National Accord established based on the Skhirat Agreement failed to operate efficiently. The priority goals of the transitional period, stipulated by the Skhirat roadmap, have not been reached: the work on the draft constitution has not been completed, and general elections, following which permanent bodies of state authority should have been formed, have not been held.

We believe that Libyans themselves should decide the fate of their country. We consider counter-productive all attempts to impose any ready-made solutions on them. This is our position of principle, not only because it is good in theory, but because nothing else works in practice. We always talk about this to our Western partners and to Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Martin Kobler.

At the same time we are convinced that new national power structures should represent the interests of all public and political forces and tribal groups. Without it we will not be able to start moving the process out of its current stalemate. This being said, no matter how the situation evolves, the political process in Libya should be based on all involved parties renouncing power methods of resolving the crisis. We should look for ways to break the deadlock through joint efforts at the negotiating table. We cannot see any alternative to a political settlement.

In line with this approach, we are carrying out methodical work with both centres of power in Libya: Tripoli and their opponents in Tobruk. We are trying to encourage them to overcome internal disagreements and look for middle ground on all points of dispute. We stressed the importance of building a constructive dialogue in our conversations with Chairman of the House of Representatives (Parliament in Tobruk) Aguila Saleh and Libyan National Army Commander Marshal Khalifa Haftar during their visits to Moscow in November and December 2016. We address the Government of National Accord in the same vein. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in New York in September of last year. We are planning to receive him in Moscow in the near future, in February.

Russia’s contacts with Marshal Haftar arouse keen interest in the foreign media and among diplomatic analysts. I have repeatedly come across situations when Russia’s efforts and contacts are quoted out of the context of what we are doing concerning Libya, and are considered as something standing separately, detached from the rest of our steps and actions aimed at the settlement of the situation in that country. Of course, this distorts the objective picture in many ways. Moscow proceeds from the premise that Marshal Haftar is a political heavyweight who exercises a dominant influence on the alignment of political forces in modern-day Libya. In addition, he has made a significant contribution to the struggle against ISIS terrorists and he continues do so. As a result of his effort, the country has resumed oil exports and has started to obtain the resources necessary for addressing urgent social and economic problems.

I would like to emphasise once again that we cooperate with various forces and we are informing you about this with an understanding of the principles that, in our opinion, underlie the potential Libyan settlement. We believe that the Libyan National Army could be the backbone of the united Libyan armed forces. On the whole, it consists of well-equipped and organised paramilitary units that have proven their capability to engage in large-scale warfare. This is evidenced by their rather successful clearing operation, eliminating extremists in Benghazi, Derna and some other communities in East Libya. The army’s chief function should boil down to fighting against the terrorist underworld and maintaining law and order.

These are our answers to the questions that you posed. I sincerely recommend that you read the article in Politico, so that you may compare our position with what is written in that publication. Everything else concerning this publication’s coverage of Russia’s approaches looks roughly the same, which is, certainly, unfortunate.


Question: What is Russia doing to ease tensions or improve the rapidly deteriorating situation in Donbass? Do you maintain contact with anyone?

Maria Zakharova: The UN Security Council recently held a meeting at the foreign minister level, and we also maintain contact with our foreign colleagues, including at international organisations. I would like you to take note of Vitaly Churkin’s statement, which has been published. We are working closely with our OSCE colleagues, the OSCE countries and the organisation itself, on the issue of objective presentation and timely provision of materials by OSCE observers, so that these materials can break out of virtual reality and be used for planning practical actions.

In the meantime, we continued to provide humanitarian aid to Donbass civilians. You know about the volume, size and forms of this aid. Government agencies and public organisations have not stopped sending this aid even for a day. It includes everything that is in short supply, including foodstuffs, medicines and other basic necessities, which are collected, packed and dispatched. Do you remember how this all started? We were almost accused of invading Ukraine when we sent the first convoys. Unfortunately, the international community has not given as much attention to subsequent convoys, although we need it to give large and objective coverage to our humanitarian efforts.

Of course, contact will be maintained at the bilateral level and within the framework of international organisations.

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