By Tom Balmforth and Stefaniia Bern
KYIV (Reuters) - Ukraine's human rights commissioner has called for more international pressure on Moscow to help Kyiv bring home thousands of Ukrainian children who Kyiv says have been illegally taken to Russia during the war.
Dmytro Lubinets spoke to Reuters in Kyiv days after several minors were reunited with their parents in western Ukraine on Saturday after a journey home from Russia and Russian-held areas.
"When Russia feels international pressure, that's when we can bring more Ukrainian children back," he said.
Matters had got "easier" since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March.
The ICC has accused Putin and Russia's Children's Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine.
Moscow, which invaded in February 2022, has repeatedly denied its forces have engaged in war crimes or forcibly taken Ukrainian children. It has said it transported Ukrainian children to protect them from fighting on the ground.
Ukraine has repatriated 406 children so far and does not know exactly how many more there are in total because it does not have access to Russia or swathes of occupied territory in the south and east, Lubinets said.
Kyiv has identified and verified almost 20,000 who have been taken, he said.
The children Ukraine seeks to return include ones taken from orphanages, those who had parents but were "kidnapped" and taken away, children who became orphans during the war and those who were separated from their parents during filtration, he added.
Svitlana Riabtseva, 39, was among a group of parents who were reunited with their children on Saturday night in western Ukraine where they had arrived from Russia via other countries.
She said she had put her children, now 10 and 9, in a state boarding school in Kupiansk, a town in the east occupied by the Russians at that time. She said she returned five days later and found the children had been taken away and bussed deep into Russian-occupied Ukraine.
"I panicked, I was hysterical," she said told Reuters in Kyiv on Wednesday.
Kupiansk was liberated in September in a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Chaos followed and there was no mobile connection. Riabtseva said she was eventually able to appeal for help from Ukrainian authorities who brought back the children to Ukrainian territory last weekend.
"They (the children) still seem frightened and they are scared of everything. They don't talk about it at all."
Reuters could not independently verify the details of her account.
Lubinets described the process of repatriating children as "very difficult". He said he did not want to disclose the mechanism so as not to compromise future missions.
He said Ukraine was partnering with non-governmental groups like Orphans Feeding Foundation, a Dutch NGO that is helping coordinate a programme launched by the president's office under the slogan "Bring Kids Back UA".
Lubinets said nine children were brought back to Ukraine last week. Eleven were returned the week before.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Angus MacSwan)