IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — Investigators searching through 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, according to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday.
The site near the northeastern city of Izium, which was recently recaptured by Russian forces, appears to be one of the largest discoveries in Ukraine.
Zelensky spoke in a video that he passed out just hours after the excavations began, apparently to underscore the gravity of the discovery. He said more than 440 graves had been found at the site but the number of victims was not yet known.
Digging in the rain, workers pulled the carcass out of sandy soil in a misty pine forest near Izium. Secured in a head-to-toe suit and rubber gloves, he felt gently through the decomposed remains of victims’ clothing, seemingly identifying objects.
Associated Press reporters who visited the site saw graves marked with simple wooden crosses. Some markers had people’s names on them and flowers were hanging on them.
Before excavating, investigators with metal detectors scanned the site for explosives, and soldiers placed red and white plastic tape between the trees.
Zelensky said hundreds of civilian adults and children, as well as soldiers, were found near Izyum’s Pishchanske cemetery who had been 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 sign of possible torture, a man was found with his hands tied, according to Serhi Bohdan, the head of the Kharkiv police investigation, and Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Dmitro Lubinets.
Ukrainian officials warned that their investigation was just beginning, and the scale of the killings could rise dramatically.
“The harsh reality indicates that the death toll in Izium may be several times higher than in the Buka tragedy,” Oleg Kotenko, a Ukrainian ministry official tasked with reconquering the occupied territories, said on Telegram.
Bucha is a Kyiv suburb where officials said 458 bodies were found after 33 days of Russian occupation. Officials say they have uncovered the bodies of more than 1,300 people elsewhere, many of them in mass graves in the forest of the Kyiv region.
Zelensky, who visited the Izium region on Wednesday, said the discoveries again showed world leaders the need to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
Meanwhile, in his first public remarks on Ukraine’s recent battlefield gains, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to move forward with the war. and warned that Moscow could intensify its attacks on the country’s critical infrastructure if Ukraine’s military targets facilities in Russia.
“If the situation develops like this, our response will be more serious,” Putin told reporters on Friday after attending a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan.
Russia has reported multiple explosions and fires at civilian infrastructure sites, as well as munitions depots and other facilities near Ukraine. Ukraine has claimed responsibility for some attacks and refrained from commenting on others.
Putin said Russia’s main military goal is the “liberation” of Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbass region.
“We are in no hurry,” he said, adding that Russia only deployed volunteer troops to fight in Ukraine.
Some hardcore Russian politicians and military bloggers have lamented the lack of manpower and urged the Kremlin to follow Ukraine’s example and order widespread mobilization to bolster ranks.
Ukrainian forces gained access to the site near Izium after recapturing the city and the wider Kharkiv region in a light advance that suddenly shifted momentum throughout the nearly seven-month war., Ukrainian authorities 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”.
“For every unlawful murder or other war crime, there must be justice and compensation for victims and their families, and a fair trial and accountability for suspected perpetrators,” said Mary Struthers, the group’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Most of those buried at the site are believed to have been civilians, but a marker on a mass grave said it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.
Russian authorities distanced themselves from responsibility for the site.
The Russian-installed governor of the Khariv region, Vitaly Ganachev, told Russia’s state-run Tass news agency that Ukrainian, not Russian, forces were responsible for civilian casualties in Izium. Tass also quoted a member of Russia’s parliament, Alexander Malkevich, as claiming that Ukrainian soldiers had left their dead, so the Russian army buried them.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, the war continued to claim lives and destruction.
Ukraine’s presidential office said five civilians were killed and 18 wounded in Russian shelling in a span of 24 hours. Missile strikes were also reported along Zelensky’s hometown of Krivi Rih for the third consecutive day on Friday. Air raid sirens sounded in the capital Kyiv.
– More killings were reported targeting pro-Russian separatist officials in areas under their control. Separatist officials said an explosion in the Luhansk region killed the prosecutor-general and his deputy from the self-proclaimed republic. Moscow-backed officials said two Russian-established officers were also killed in Burdiansk, a city in the Zaporizhzhya region already captured in the war. And local officials said three people were killed in a Ukrainian missile attack on an administrative building in Russian-held Kherson.
– To bolster Ukrainian offensive, Biden administration announces another $600 million package of military aid,
Izium resident Sergei Gorodko said hundreds of adults and children buried in individual graves were killed in a Russian air raid on an apartment building, some of whom he pulled out of the rubble “with his own hands”.
Izium was a major supply center for the Russian military until they returned in more recent times. Izyum city council member Maxim Strelnikov told reporters that hundreds of people were killed during the fighting and after Russia captured the city in March. Many could not be buried properly, he said.
Their claims could not be immediately verified, but similar scenes have played out in other cities occupied by Russian forces, including Mariupol.
Ukraine’s national police chief Ihor Klymenko said “torture chambers” had been found in towns and villages occupied by the Kharkiv region. The claim could not be independently verified.
He said that seven Sri Lankan students who fell into Russian hands in the Kharkiv region in Kupiyansk have also said that they were captured and abused.
“They are scared, they have been abused,” Klymenko said. These include “a woman who can barely speak” and two people with cracked toenails.
This story has been updated to correct that seven, not six, Sri Lankan students said they fell into Russian hands.
Associated Press journalists Hannah Arhirova and John Gambrel in Kiev and Jamie Keaton in Geneva contributed reporting.
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