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Civilian Shields in Donetsk: Launching Grads near a Residential Area

February 2, 2017

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский

This report was written in collaboration with the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT).

The title of this report was modified following feedback regarding the term human shield. The use of Grads in this area of Donetsk endangers civilian lives, but is not intended to meet the legal definition of human shields. The legal term ‘endangering protected persons’ (civilians in this case) is most probably more suitable for this  situation.

On 31 January 2017, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine recorded the up to now highest number of explosions in the war in Eastern Ukraine. The current hotspot of the fighting, which has led to numerous civilian and military casualties, is the area between Adviivka, controlled by Ukraine, and Yasynuvata, controlled by the so-called “DNR” (Donetsk People’s Republic). The current events mark a new peak in the fighting in this warming winter (1 / 2). The press center of the Ukrainian “Anti-Terrorist Operation” reported that at least 100 Grad rockets were fired by combined Russian-separatists forces in the Donetsk sector on January 31. As this report will demonstrate, recently uploaded videos show least half of these rocket launches, which have been geolocated to a residential sector in eastern Donetsk. Recent satellite imagery and witness accounts confirm the geolocation, revealing the firing locations for Russian-separatist Grad launches.

Grads near Auchan

Social media accounts from a local pro-Ukrainian VK.com group in Donetsk monitoring outgoing and incoming shelling (see here, and here) suggest that combined Russian-separatists forces have been constantly firing Grads from the separatist-controlled Donetsk bypass highway near Auchan hypermarket:

“10 mins ago 4 Grads fire three packages each from the bypass road and bailed out… BITCHES!!!”
“Grad firing from bypass near Auchan” (source)

The same is reported by a popular pro-Ukrainian blogger, who likely uses a similar group as a source:

“11:15 Grads fired off their salvos from the bypass near Auchan and were off immediately”

As often is the case with shelling, social-media users reported incoming fire from government-controlled Avdiivka, including Grad MLRS, roughly at the same time as outgoing Grad fire was reported from Donetsk:

4:16 Grads again, near the church, loud and scary!!!

11:10 Chaotic impacts on Turgeneva, like in 2015

14:54 Grads fired from Donetsk as soon as the repair brigades went out, those bitches!

Furthermore, a pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reporter describes hearing Grads (archived) while at a mourning service for killed Vostok commander Ivan “Grek” Balakai on January 31 (see DRFLab report on the circumstances of his death). Later, a friend of the reporter confirmed to her that Grads were constantly firing the night before (January 30) and are based near the Auchan hypermarket. A video from the ceremony posted on the VK community of the Vostok battalion where the deceased commander used to serve confirms that the church is located in the residential area south of the hypermarket (47.989551 37.911307).

These reports are noteworthy because the stated location near the Hypermarket Auchan (47.996948 37.910538) suggests outgoing fire near a residential area. The Donetsk Bypass and an oncological hospital (47.997286  37.901797) are also in the general area.

Additionally, the church referenced by the Komsomolskaya Pravda reporter is in the same area, marked by yellow in the map below. A comparison of a video produced showing the church service for “Grek” and Yandex Panorama (street view) imagery shows that they are the same church, located near the residential area where Grads were fired.

Figure 1: Location of the Auchan hypermarket (red) and church where service was held for “Grek” (yellow). Digital Globe, Google Earth

Rockets on video

Beside these reports, six videos were uploaded showing the usage of Multi-Launch-Rocket-Systems (MLRS) near Donetsk on 31 January 2017 and 1 February 2017. Two videos show launches at night and were published on 31 January 2017. Three videos published on 31 January 2017 show launches during the day, and another video showing a launch during the day was published on 1 February 2017. All six videos could be geolocated to the area near of the Auchan hypermarket (video 1+2 / 3+4 /6).

Figure 2: Geolocation and approximate viewing direction of the six videos showing Grad launches near the Auchan hypermarket, Digital Globe, Google Earth

Five of the videos point to a launch site a bit east of the hypermarket, and video 5 points to a launch site east of the residential block from which the video was filmed. A detailed analysis of the videos reveals that video 1 and 2 – the two videos showing the night Grad launch – quite likely show the same attack. In both videos, a van is visible on the road. In total, at least 15 launched rockets are visible in videos, while around 20 launches are audible.

Figure 3: Still from video 3 (left) and video 4 (right)

Video 3 and 4 were filmed from approximately the same area of the quarters south of the hypermarket. In both videos, we observe civilan cars driving on a visible bypass. The rocket launch also occurs in approximately the same area. However, both videos most likely do not show the same scene. In video 4, sirens are audible after the launch, while nothing similar is audible in video 3. Also, the dust cloud resulting from the launch has a different form at the moment the last rocket is launched in both videos. Twenty-eight rockets are fired in video 3. At the beginning of this video, a salvo of 8 rockets is launched, and after a brief pause, another salvo encompassing 20 rockets is observed. Given the almost parallel launch of two rockets each in the second salvo, two launchers are likely. Video 4 shows at least 8 launched rockets.

Figure 4: Two frames from video 5, with visible rockets in the sky. Contrast and brightness have been adjusted.

Video 5 shows a different perspective with the camera pointing to the east. In the video, with audible sirens in the background, at least 9 rockets are just barely visible in the sky above the filmed building – almost in the center of frame. The different viewpoint and the trajectory of the visible rockets suggest a different launch site east of the residential area.

Video 6 again points towards the launch site near the Hypermarket Auchan. At the beginning of the video, the visible dust cloud and audible sirens suggest that the preceding salvo was not covered by the video. After a few seconds, a second salvo is fired. At least 7 rockets are visible, but the audible sound suggests that additional rockets were fired.

In total, the five videos published on 31 January 2017 show four different attacks with at least 60 launched rockets from the area. While we can only see this many rockets, the recorded sounds in the videos suggest that additional missiles were launched in these four attacks. At least two different launch locations were used for this attacks.

Looking from above

Recent satellite imagery allows us to further confirm the video and social media content, with available satellite imagery from Tuesday, 31 January, and two weeks ago, 20 January. The ground scarring (blast marks)  resulting from outgoing MLRS fire is clearly visible in the more recent imagery. Moreover, the identified launch sites exactly match the areas identified in the videos.

Comparison between 20.01.2017 and 31.01.2017 (47.998585 37.913008), Digital Globe, NextView license

The open area 200 meters east of the hypermarket and 40 meters south of the bypass shows 5 blast marks in the 31 January 2017 imagery. Similar marks are not visible in the 20 January 2017 imagery. The overlapping of the center three marks suggests that the area was used at least three times. The tracks leading to the marks come directly from the bypass. This area corresponds with the rockets launches seen in videos 3, 4 and 6. However, given that video 6 was published on 01 February 2017, this particular attack may not be covered by the available imagery.

Comparison between 20.01.2017 and 31.01.2017 (47.994986 37.932735), Digital Globe, NextView license

A second launch site could be identified east of the residential areas and just beside the bypass (47.994986 37.932735). The area shows four blast marks. The grouping suggests that two attacks were launched from this position. The 9 visible blast marks indicate that they all used the same firing direction and point approximately toward Avdiivka, which is approximately 18-19 km north-west of the location.

Summary

 The available evidence clearly documents that on 31 January 2017, multiple attacks with MLR systems were launched in proximity of the hypermarket Auchan in Donetsk. The location deep inside the so-called “DNR” and the firing directing pointing toward Avdiivka clearly document the responsible side for these particular attacks. One launch site is around 200 meters east of the hypermarket, and in fewer than 500 meters from a school and residential area. The second launch site is in proximity of the bypass and around 600 meters from an industrial area and 1000 meters from a residential area. Some of the attacks occured during the day while the nearby bypass was also used by civilians.

Given the proximity of both launch sites to civilian infrastructure in the area, a potential Ukrainian counter attack to surpress and respond to the rocket fire would have automatically risked civilian lives in the area. The cross-country mobility of the likely used MLR system, BM-21 Grad, would have allowed alternative launch sites. However, the repeated usage of the launch site 200 meters east of the hypermarket Auchan strongly suggest that the selection of this area happened on purpose, deliberately risking the lives of the civilians in the area.

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31 Comments

  1. Feanor

    You should consider looking into the OSCE hanging out with Ukrainian tanks in Avdeevka, in violation of the recent agreements. Or into the random shelling by Ukrainian indirect-fire assets of Donetsk itself rather then directed counter-battery fire. It’s not a whole lot different from Hezbollah rocket attacks into Israel during the ’06 war.

    Reply
    • MST

      Even despite there is no evidence of tanks, does it justify firing with MSLR from one civil area to another civil area???

      Reply
  2. Andrea

    So basically talking about IHL… (InternationalHumanitarianLaw/Laws of war)

    # by firing grads in a civilian environment DNR commanders made the civilian target a war objective, therefore Ukrainian retaliation can’t be considered breaching IHL.
    # Ukrainian retaliation strike, even if not directly against IHL, can be considered pretty reckless… because there was a very high risk to cause collateral damage compared to a very low chance of hitting the MRL launcers (very mobile, likely to relocate after shooting).

    SUMMING UP: if you put ANY military target/infrastructure next to a civilian one you can’t be surprised if your enemy hits the civilian target next to the military one…
    There should ALWAYS be a CLEAR DISTINCTION between MILITARY and CIVILIAN !

    Reply
    • stranger

      The question is that Ukraine according to Minsk agreements should not have pulled heavy weapon to the separation line at all. Despite of Minsk, Ukraine does what is called “crawling offence” by occupying more grey zone territories next to the separatists positions and provoking fire. I believe many times Ukraine fires first. The reason behind that is that the sponsors are gradually losing they interest in Ukraine and Trump’s coming may warm the relationships with russia and relieve sanction pressure. Ukraine wants to demand attention to itself again.
      As for military separately, civilians separately, I believe that is a nostalgia on the good old times of the 17-18 centuries. When armies stood one against the other in an open field, dressed in parade, vivid costumes, advanced in even rows and made a break for a lunch and for a sleep. Never since then… 🙁

      Reply
      • Paul

        According to Minsk, there are no gray zones. I remind you that after the signing of that agreement Russians took Debaltseve by force and advanced from the agreed upon borderline. Ukrainians are yet to breach Minsk by advancing, they act within their own allocated space.
        There is no loss of interest in Ukraine, both commander Mattis and senator McCain are long-time supporters of Ukraine and they regularly reminded Obama and now Trump of the situation.

        Reply
        • Feanor

          There is a physical no-man’s land between rebel and Ukrainian positions. Ukrainian troops move into this territory, build positions, and then use them to fire on rebel positions in the hope of forcing them back and creating a new no-man’s land. That Ukrainian troops can then move into, build positions (under the cover of a ceasefire) and rinse wash repeat.

          Reply
        • stranger

          Ok, let’s be more accurate, no “Grey Zones”, you are right. There is the minimum distance from the separation line, Ukraine is allowed to have heavy weapon like tanks, artillery, grads, and probably mortars from. No any fire is ever allowed, the political part of Minsk should be facilitated instead. As we can easily see Ukraine violates this requirement.
          What did I mentioned “Grey Zones”. In you trustable Radio Liberty used to be financed by US congress, they said that Ukraine does “Crawling Offence” into the “Grey Zones” and provoking the rebels fire and bloody clashes. I was so amused RL accused Ukraine, that took their term w/o explanation. Under Grey Zones their probably meant the too short distance to the separation line like 0.5-1km which is under direct fire from the opposite side.
          Really i don’t have too much time to look for the evidences, please you do if you have. I’ve read many sources from either side which supposed Ukraine provokes fire to improve their international position in the light of Trump’s plan to decrease the confrontation with Russia, including your loved Radio Liberty.
          What I do have material: Please take a look at the Minsk violation breakdown according to OSCE:
          osce.org/ukraine-smm/297571?download=true
          That is more/less objective information. Compare how much more explosions were registered at DNR/LNR controlled territory verses Government controlled, and make a conclusion that Ukraine massively fired on living areas in DNR territory. Read their other reports. The article of ding-donging-cats would never tell you that. In their picture of reality only Ukrainian controlled civilian areas are under fire. Don’t agree with me? Give the facts and numbers, I’ve given you mine.

          Reply
        • stranger

          Yes, and regarding senator McCain – he is nobody for the government, always hawkish trouble maker. As Trump said, his only merit is that he was captured by Vietnamese when his jet was shot during the Vietnam war.

          Reply
        • stranger

          One more thing. The escalation of fire started several hours after a remarkable Putin – Trump phone conversation which was in warm tone. At the same time Poroshenko was in Germany, discussing Minsk implementation with Merkel. That might witness Ukraine wanted to give trump cards to their president and raise the bets.

          Reply
        • stranger

          That’s what Radio Liberty (!) wrote, I was just shocked:
          Frustrated by the stalemate in this 33-month war of attrition, concerned that Western support is waning, and sensing that U.S. President Donald Trump could cut Kyiv out of any peace negotiations as he tries to improve fraught relations with Moscow, Ukrainian forces anxious to show their newfound strength have gone on what many here are calling a «creeping offensive.»

          Reply
        • stranger

          It seems now like the fighting for Trump’s future position. Some republican senators like ridiculous McCain, senator Glenn, a number of European politicians and first of all Ukraine wants Trump to turn away from his pronounced plans to recover the good relationships with Russia. Moreover Obama on his leaving also made all trouble he could to complicate possible warming with Russia. Such greatest provocation of Ukraine recently might have been addressed to Trump.

          Reply
          • stranger

            Oh gosh, the word ‘McCa1n’ is already in the black list causing premoderation?! I told you this is a bad word.

    • activist

      Not true. Fasist fire from adivka to doneck on civilians. Then rebels to protect civilians fire from aoutsite doneck to enemy

      Reply
  3. richard

    You need to share your information and share

    http://euromaidanpress.com/2017/02/02/why-avdiivka-is-the-weakest-point-russia-ukraine-donbas/#arvlbdata

    Help fight FAKE NEWS. Russia rules the information war. We need to do our part and fight back. Please take some time to send some this article to all the news media you can. It explains why the Russians started fighting in Avdiivaka . Most of the News Media (including American Media) seem to use Associated Press out of Moscow version. “we do not know who started the fight”. OSCE said the Russian side started. Find the quote. or the media says “Ukraine was moving past the center line” again B.S. . Ukraine controlled this town since July 2015. This article explains it all. Use google News and look up “Ukraine” to get the news sites covering the recent fighting in Ukraine. Please help me do it as soon as possible as the Western World does not know the real facts.

    Reply
  4. Mad Dog

    Ah yes, stranger jumps in to divert from the intent of the article with little (actually no) evidence to back up his point. Please show us where the Ukrainian forces fired and also please let us know why that would mean it is okay to fire Grads several times from areas in very close proximity to civilian structures.

    Reply
    • stranger

      Mad Dog, what have written above in no way is irrelevant. Please find the numbers from OSCE report above!

      Reply
      • reader

        Get your facts straight: those were outgoing explosions from DPR.

        On the night of 30-31 January, while in “DPR”-controlled Horlivka (39km north-east of Donetsk) the SMM saw 62 airbursts 8-20km south-west and heard over 100 undetermined explosions and heavy-machine-gun fire 4-10 km south-west, north-west and 10-15km south-south-east. On the morning of 31 January, the SMM heard four undetermined explosions 8-9km south and south-west. In the afternoon the SMM heard 190 undetermined explosions and approximately 1,800 outgoing explosions assessed as multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) (type unknown) fire and 50 undetermined explosions 20km south-west and south-south-east. Later the SMM heard 135 undetermined explosions and 2,640 explosions assessed as outgoing MLRS fire 20km south-west. In the early evening the SMM heard 120 explosions assessed as impacts of MLRS rounds 6km north-west.

        On 31 January, positioned in government-controlled Avdiivka (17km north of Donetsk) the SMM heard almost 2,250 undetermined explosions 1-5km east and east-south-east and almost 200 explosions assessed as impacts of MLRS rounds 3.4-4km east-south-east. On 31 January, the SMM camera in Avdiivka recorded 53 undetermined explosions all 2-4km south-east.

        http://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/296961

        Reply
  5. activist

    I must laght. In allepo you say Assad bombed civilinas, but you dont see alqaede using civilians area like fire post:)))

    Reply
  6. Armin

    Can we expect the same approach on recently detected ukrainian tanks between apartment buildings in Avdiivka ?

    The focussing on separatists without no mention of ukrainian offensives over the last weeks on several places (Waterworks of Donetsk, Kominternovo, Svitlodarsk-Debaltseve area, western outskirts of Pervomaysk and Stakhanov) which obviuously led to current escalation is a clear piece of circumstantial evidence for partisanship of Bellingcat.

    This systematic blindness on one eye is a good reason to not to take Bellingcat seriously.

    Reply
      • Cody Johnson Jr

        What about this Buk missile that fell in Makeevka?

        Looks like Ukraine fired it judging by the serial number.

        Reply
    • Black Star

      You do not like the information in the article since you try a clumsy diversion to something you would like to discuss so much more?

      Reply

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