The discovery of hundreds of unidentified bodies in an area near the Ukrainian-taken city of Izium has fueled Kiev’s accusations of Russian war crimes and revived the version battle between the two sides of the conflict.
Kiev announced on Thursday that it had found what it estimated were 440 bodies buried in the same area, with about 200 makeshift wooden crosses. Local officials began digging them up, and the regional government says some had their hands tied behind their backs and signs of violent death.
An AFP news agency reporter present at the scene reported seeing at least one body this way. As it was deteriorated, it was not possible to determine whether it was a civilian or a military man.
The Reuters news agency, which on Friday morning had published a story describing some bodies had ropes around their necks, later took the text off the air, explaining that its reporters had not seen the scene themselves.
Police Chief Ihor Klumenko told a news conference that the bodies recovered appear to be civilians, although there are reports that some soldiers may have been placed there as well.
Moscow forces had taken control of the city in late March after a three-week siege and turned it into a military stronghold for planning attacks in eastern Ukraine. The site, however, was retaken by Kiev troops last week, amid a mostly successful counteroffensive.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, during a video speech he gives every night, said the discovery shows the world the balance of Russian occupation. “Russia leaves death everywhere and must be held responsible for it,” said the Ukrainian.
He also compared the scene to scenes seen in the town of Butcha, outside Kiev, where hundreds of bodies were found in April and sparked demonstrations by the international community. Zelensky even called the deaths of civilians a crime of genocide, and leaders around the world also spoke out.
In an interview with Reuters on Friday, he added that situations such as that of Izium had been observed in several of the areas recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces, in the northeast of the country, and declared that there were indications of war crimes in these regions, including torture of individuals and of entire families, and that cases will be investigated with international assistance.
Dmitro Lubinets, human rights commissioner in the Ukrainian Parliament, said more than 1,000 people were tortured and killed in Russian-occupied areas in the Kharkiv region, a figure that could not be independently confirmed.
Russia repeatedly denies that its forces commit war crimes. The head of the pro-Moscow government who led Izium before the retreat, Vitali Gantchev, accused Ukrainian forces of being responsible for the killings in an attempt to blame the Russians, according to a report by the Tass news agency.
In a social network, Mikhailo Podoliak, adviser to the Presidency of Ukraine, used the episode to criticize sectors that defend the end of the war. “Does anyone else want to ‘freeze the war’ instead of sending us more tanks?” he questioned. “We have no right to leave people alone with evil,” he continued, referring to the Russians.