UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The International Committee of the Red Cross says it has been in contact with a Russian official suspected of war crimes as it works for the return of Ukrainian children who were deported to Russia.
The ICRC’s contacts with Russian children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova marked the first confirmation of high-level international intervention to reunite families with children who were forcibly deported.
ICRC spokesman Jason Straziuso said Thursday the organization is in contact with Lvova-Belova “in line with its mandate to restore contact between separated families and facilitate reunification where feasible.”
That goes beyond the engagement of other agencies. The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said it has also been in contact with Russian officials about the children, but spokesman Kurtis Cooper told The Associated Press that UNICEF “has not received feedback on our offer to facilitate reunifications processes.” Refugees International denied any contact with the Russians — despite Lvova-Belova’s claim it had contacted her.
Deportations of Ukrainian children have been a concern since Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. The International Criminal Court increased pressure on Russia when it issued arrest warrants on March 17 for Lvova-Belova and Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing them of abducting children from Ukraine.
An AP investigation revealed Lvova-Belova’s involvement in the abductions and found an open effort to put Ukrainian children up for adoption in Russia.
Lvova-Belova told an informal U.N. Security Council meeting Wednesday that the children were taken for their safety, not abducted — a claim widely rejected by the international community.
Lvova-Belova spoke by video link at a meeting called by Russia and opposed by Western countries that sent low-level diplomats instead of their ambassadors. Representatives from four countries — the U.S., UK, Albania and Malta — walked out when she began her remarks.
She said Russia has had no official communication with Ukrainian authorities about the children, but added her office has met with representatives of the ICRC, UNICEF, and Refugees International, and provided “all available information about the situation of children.”
ICRC spokesman Straziuso on Thursday confirmed its contact with Lvova-Belova.
Straziuso said the reunification process includes tracing family members, establishing and maintaining contact, “obtaining relevant consents and documentation, reuniting families, and seeking to clarify the fate and whereabouts of those who remain missing.”
For the ICRC to move forward, he said, families must first file a tracing request with details about the child with the Red Cross.
The exact number of Ukrainian children taken to Russia has been difficult to determine, and numbers from the warring countries differ vastly.
A statement posted Wednesday on Twitter by Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said more than 19,500 children had been seized from their families or orphanages and forcibly deported.
Lvova-Belova said that since February 2022, Russia has taken in more than 5 million Ukrainians, including 700,000 children — all with parents, relatives or legal guardians except for 2,000 from orphanages in the eastern Donbas.
To date, she said, about 1,300 children have been returned to their orphanages, 400 were sent to Russian orphanages and 358 were placed in foster homes. She claimed no Ukrainian children have been adopted. ___ Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Geneva