Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of genocide after the discovery of a mass grave allegedly containing 440 bodies near Izyum, a city recently recaptured from Russian forces.
The Ukrainian president said there was evidence that victims had been tortured. He said that some had been found with broken limbs and ropes around their necks, and that the burial site contained the bodies of civilians and of military personnel.
“Children and adults. Civilians and military. Tortured, shot, killed by shelling,” Mr Zelensky said. “Even entire families are buried there: mother, father and daughter.”
More than 400 graves have been found at the site.
Mr Zelensky, who visited the area around Izyum on Wednesday, said the discoveries showed again the need for world leaders to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. He confirmed the grim discovery overnight on Thursday, and said that “the necessary procedures have already begun there”.
“The Russian army has been in the Kharkiv region for more than five months. And during this time, the occupiers did not even try to do anything for the people,” said Mr Zelensky. “They only destroyed, only deprived, only took away. They left behind devastated villages, and in some of them there is not a single undamaged house. Russia cannot bring anything else except for genocide.”
The site in the eastern city of Izyum also contained the bodies of people who had been killed by shelling and airstrikes, regional police official Serhiy Bolvinov said.
Mr Bolvinov, the chief police investigator for the Kharkiv region, told Sky News that forensic investigations would be carried out on all of the bodies. On Friday it was reported that some 200 wooden crosses had been discovered at a site close to the city. There was at least one mass grave, with a marker saying it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.
On Friday, Ukraine’s police chief said that most of the people buried in the mass grave were civilians. Asked if the Izyum site contained mainly civilians or soldiers, police chief Ihor Klymenko told a news conference: “On a preliminary estimate, civilians. Although we have information that there are soldiers there, too, we haven’t recovered a single one yet.” The exhumations are continuing, he added.
Local resident Sergei Gorodko said that among the hundreds buried in individual graves were dozens of adults and children killed in a Russian airstrike on an apartment building. He said he had pulled some of them out of the rubble “with my own hands”.
A spokesperson for the UN’s human rights office, Liz Throssell, told a press briefing in Geneva that the organisation plans to send monitors to the city to “to try to establish a bit more about what may have happened”, though she did not give a timeframe.
Mr Zelensky put the blame on Russia and likened the discovery to what had happened in Bucha, on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, during the early stages of the invasion by Russian forces.
Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russian forces of perpetrating war crimes there.
“Bucha, Mariupol… now, unfortunately, Izyum. Russia leaves death everywhere. And it must be held accountable for it. The world must bring Russia to real responsibility for this war,” Mr Zelensky said.
Russia’s forces left Izyum and other parts of the Kharkiv region last week amid a stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive.
On Wednesday, Mr Zelensky made a rare trip out of Ukraine’s capital to watch the raising of the national flag at Izyum’s city hall.
Russia has not yet commented on the allegations of a mass grave at Izyum. It has repeatedly denied that it targets civilians or has committed war crimes. However, an unrepentant Vladimir Putin warned that the war could get “more serious” for Ukraine, despite the smaller country’s recent successes.
Speaking after a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in the Uzbek city of Samarkand, Mr Putin said Moscow was in no hurry in Ukraine, and that its goals remained unchanged.
“The Kyiv authorities announced that they have launched and are conducting an active counteroffensive operation. Well, let’s see how it develops, how it ends up,” Mr Putin said with a grin.
“Recently, the Russian armed forces have inflicted a couple of sensitive blows. Let’s assume they’re a warning. If the situation continues to develop like this, then the response will be more serious,” he said.
Additional reporting by agencies