IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — Investigators searching a mass burial site in Ukraine have found evidence that some of the dead were tortured, including bodies with broken limbs and ropes around their necks, said Friday Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy.
The site near the northeastern town of Izium, recently recaptured from Russian forces, appears to be one of the largest discovered in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy spoke in a video that he rushed off just hours after the exhumations began, apparently to emphasize the seriousness of the find. He said more than 440 graves had been discovered at the site but the number of victims was not yet known.
Digging in the rain, workers pulled body after body from the sandy soil of a misty pine forest near Izium. Protected by head-to-toe coveralls and rubber gloves, they gently patted the rotting remains of the victims’ clothing, apparently looking for identifying features.
Associated Press reporters who visited the site saw graves marked with simple wooden crosses. Some of the markers had people’s names on them and flowers hung from them.
Before digging, investigators equipped with metal detectors scanned the site for explosives and soldiers stretched red and white duct tape between the trees.
Zelenskyy said hundreds of civilian adults and children, as well as soldiers, were found near the Pishchanske cemetery in Izium after being tortured, shot or killed by artillery fire.
He cited evidence of atrocities, such as a body with a rope around its neck and broken arms. In another possible sign of torture, a man was found with his hands tied, according to Serhiy Bohdan, the head of Kharikiv police investigations, and Ukrainian human rights commissioner Dmytro Lubinets.
Ukrainian authorities have warned that their investigation is just beginning and that the scale of the killings could increase dramatically.
“The harsh reality indicates that the death toll in Izium could be several times higher than that of the tragedy in Bucha,” Oleg Kotenko, an official with Ukraine’s Ministry for the Reintegration of Occupied Territories, said on Telegram.
Bucha is a Kyiv suburb where authorities said 458 bodies were found after a 33-day Russian occupation. Authorities say they have discovered the bodies of more than 1,300 people elsewhere, many of them in mass graves in the Kyiv region’s forest.
Zelenskyy, who visited the Izium region on Wednesday, said the findings again showed the need for world leaders to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
Meanwhile, in his first public comments on Ukraine’s recent battlefield gains, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to continue with the war and warned that Moscow could step up its strikes on the country’s vital infrastructure if Ukrainian forces target facilities in Russia.
“If the situation develops this way, our response will be more serious,” Putin told reporters on Friday after attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan.
Russia has reported numerous explosions and fires at civilian infrastructure sites near Ukraine, as well as ammunition depots and other facilities. Ukraine claimed responsibility for some of the attacks and refrained from commenting on others.
The “liberation” of Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbass region remains Russia’s main military objective, Putin said.
“We are in no rush,” he said, adding that Russia had only deployed volunteer soldiers to fight in Ukraine.
Some diehard Russian military politicians and bloggers have lamented the manpower shortages and urged the Kremlin to follow Ukraine’s lead and order a broad mobilization to bolster the ranks.
Ukrainian forces gained access to the site near Izium after retaking the city and much of the wider Kharkiv region in a lightning advance that suddenly changed the momentum of the nearly seven-month war. Ukrainian officials also found evidence of torture elsewhere in the region.
The UN human rights office said it would investigate, and human rights group Amnesty International said the discovery of the mass burial site confirmed “our deepest fears”. dark”.
“For every unlawful killing or other war crime, there must be justice and reparation for the victims and their families and a fair trial and accountability for the alleged perpetrators,” said Marie Struthers, the group’s director for Eastern Europe. East and Central Asia.
Most of those buried at the site were thought to be civilians, but a marker on a mass grave said it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.
Russian officials have moved away from responsibility for the site.
Russian Khariv region governor Vitaly Ganchev told Russian news agency Tass that Ukrainian, not Russian, forces were responsible for the civilian casualties in Izium. Tass also quoted a member of the Russian parliament, Alexander Malkevich, as saying that Ukrainian troops abandoned their dead, so Russian forces buried them.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, the war continued to claim lives and wreak havoc.
– Ukraine’s presidential office says Russian shelling killed five civilians and injured 18 in 24 hours. Missile strikes were also reported, with Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih among the targets for a third straight day on Friday. Air raid sirens wailed in the capital, Kyiv.
— Other killings targeting pro-Russian separatist officials have been reported in areas under their control. Separatist authorities said an explosion killed the prosecutor general and his deputy of the self-proclaimed republic in the Lugansk region. Moscow-backed authorities said two Russian-installed officials were also killed in Berdyansk, a town in the Zaporizhzhia region occupied earlier in the war. And local authorities reported that three people were killed in a Ukrainian missile strike on an administrative building in Russian-occupied Kherson.
— To strengthen the Ukrainian offensive, the Biden administration announced another $600 million in military aid.
Izium resident Sergei Gorodko said among the hundreds buried in individual graves were dozens of adults and children killed in a Russian airstrike on an apartment building, some of whom were killed. pulled out of the rubble “with my own hands”.
Izium was a key supply hub for Russian forces until they withdrew in recent days. Maksym Strelnikov, a member of the Izium city council, told reporters that hundreds of people had died during the fighting and after the city was captured by Russia in March. Many could not be properly buried, he said.
His claims could not be immediately verified, but similar scenes unfolded in other towns captured by Russian forces, including Mariupol.
Ukraine’s national police chief Ihor Klymenko said “torture chambers” had been discovered in recaptured towns and villages in the Kharkiv region. The claim could not be independently verified.
Seven Sri Lankan students who fell into Russian hands in Kupiansk, also in the Kharkiv region, also said they were detained and mistreated, he said.
“They are scared, they have been mistreated,” Klymenko said. Among them, “a woman who can barely speak” and two people with torn fingernails.
This story has been updated to correct that seven Sri Lankan students, not six, said they fell into Russian hands.
Associated Press reporters Hanna Arhirova and Jon Gambrell in Kyiv and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed reporting.
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Vasilisa Stepanenko, Associated Press