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Ukraine death toll climbs, but information scant

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Fri Jul 11, 7:19 PM UTC

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The only thing clear about the death toll in eastern Ukraine, where government troops are battling separatist rebels, is that it's mounting.

After a faltering start, government efforts to reverse the tide of a pro-Russian insurgency have in recent weeks taken on an urgent impetus. It has frequently meant deadly results for the civilian population, however, as the army deploys heavy artillery and airpower to strike rebel forces that have used residential areas for cover.

General Prosecutor Vitali Yarema said this week that authorities will seek to uncover the case of any casualties in the area falling within the government's ambitious security operation.

"Every death, every physical injury, every body of an unidentified individual found will be entered into the unified register of pre-trial investigations, and each case will be investigated as much as possible," he said.

Lawlessness and daily fighting have made it deeply problematic for the government to give solid figures. The Health Ministry announced Thursday that 478 people had died in eastern regions affected by the unrest since April. Officials later scrambled to clarify that this included deaths from natural causes and that it wasn't possible to know yet who had died directly as a result of fighting.

The ministry said it will work on drawing up more detailed figures, but that this could take several weeks.

The United Nations, which in mid-June ventured a death toll of 356 people, including 257 civilians, has expressed increasing alarm at the number of noncombatants caught up in the major fighting that followed the end of a 10-day cease-fire at the end of last month.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay last week noted in a report that at least five children had been killed in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in June.

"There have also been reports of the use of landmines, which have allegedly led to three deaths and left several people injured," she said.

More information is forthcoming about military deaths. As of Friday, the Defense Ministry has confirmed that just over 200 servicemen have perished in fighting.

Even here confusion and crossed wires have muddied the picture, however.

One of the single biggest losses came Friday, when rebels hit a mobile army base near the Russian border with a barrage of rockets, killing 19, according to the Defense Ministry. Hours before the military provided that figure, an official with the Interior Ministry grimly announced the loss of 30 troops, only to then be corrected.

Meanwhile, the deputy of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, Andrei Purgin, told The Associated Press on Friday that more than 500 rebel fighters have been killed in action.

Both sides have regularly traded accusations that the other is low-balling casualty figures to avoid deflating morale among supporters.

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