Kyiv: Ukrainian authorities have found a mass grave of more than 440 bodies in the eastern city of Izium that was recaptured from Russian forces, a regional police official said on Thursday, adding that some people had been killed by shelling and air strikes.
Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press
An abandoned Russian tank sits in vegetation in a village on the outskirts of Izium, Ukraine
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.”
Serhiy Bolvinov, the chief police investigator for Kharkiv region, told Sky News that forensic investigations would be carried out on every body
“I can say it is one of the largest burial sites in a big town in liberated [areas] … 440 bodies were buried in one place,” Bolvinov said.
Abandoned Russian munitions lie in a village on the outskirts of Izium, Ukraine
“Some died because of artillery fire … some died because of air strikes,” he said. Thousands of Russian troops fled Izium at the weekend.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had paid a surprise visit to Izium on Wednesday to greet Ukrainian troops, put the blame on Russia and likened the discovery to what happened in Bucha, on the outskirts of the capital Kyiv in the early stages of the late February invasion by Russian forces.
A former school building that was used as a base for Russian troops in Izium lies in ruins.
“Russia is leaving death behind it everywhere and must be held responsible,” Zelensky said in a video address.
Russia has repeatedly denied it targets civilians or has committed war crimes.
Reuters could not immediately verify the Ukrainian claim and there was no immediate public comment from Russia on the allegation.
Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russian forces of perpetrating war crimes there. Tens of thousands of civilians were likely killed in a separate Russian assault on the southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said in April.
After a week of rapid Ukrainian gains in the northeast, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were fortifying defences and it would be hard to maintain the pace of the advance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to comment publicly on the setback suffered by his forces this month. Ukrainian officials say 9000 square kilometres has been retaken, territory about the size of the island of Cyprus.
A Ukrainian cyclist peddles by a deserted Russian armoured vehicle
Footage shot by Reuters on Thursday in the eastern town of Kupiansk, which Ukrainian forces recaptured last week, showed many buildings had been damaged or burned out.
“No electricity, no communications … if there were communications we could least talk to family. If only there hadn’t been all this bombing with everyone in their basements,” one man said.
Piles of ammunition found near a bunker the Russians used as a command center in Izium.
The speed of the advance has lifted hopes of further gains before the winter sets in.
Izium resident Valeriy, pictured with his wife, told CNN that locals were angry with the Russians .
But Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, said it would still be a tough fight to wrest control of his region back from Russia, which recognises it as an independent state controlled by separatists.
There was no let-up either in Russia’s daily missile strikes on Thursday, a day after it fired cruise missiles at a reservoir dam near Kryvyi Rih, Zelensky’s hometown in central Ukraine.
Authorities in Kryvyi Rih are working to repair the damage and as a result water levels are receding, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the presidential administration.
Ukrainian forces repelled three Russian attacks north of the city of Donetsk, the armed forces’ general staff said in a Facebook post.
A Ukrainian soldier takes a break to rest in the freed territory in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine,
Supplies for Ukraine to fuel its advance
The quick Russian retreat has enabled Ukraine to capture Russian arms, ammunition, fuel and supplies in those rear areas, said Telenko, adding that the addition of trucks and trains to the Ukrainian inventory will allow Kyiv to “supercharge” its advances.
Analysts have also noted the lack of Russian air support.
Richard Hooker Jr., a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, said last month that Ukraine has stitched together a force of older antiaircraft systems already in its inventory with supplies of US and German equipment and “largely sidelined Russian airpower.”
“Ukraine has been outstandingly successful in denying Russia air supremacy with extremely effective air defense and a strategy of ‘air denial,’” Hooper wrote on the Atlantic Council’s “Ukraine Alert” blog.
Russian forces had launched attacks on several settlements on the Kharkiv frontline in the past 24 hours, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
A destroyed bridge is seen near Izium.
China’s concerns about Ukraine
Russia’s Putin said on Thursday he understood China’s leader Xi Jinping had concerns about the crisis in Ukraine, a surprise acknowledgment of friction with Beijing over the war.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, China has trod a careful line, criticising Western sanctions against Moscow but stopping short of endorsing or assisting in the military campaign.
“We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” Putin told Xi in Uzbekistan at their first meeting since the war began.
A Ukranian soldier on Sunday stands atop an abandoned Russian tank near a village on the outskirts of Izyum, Ukraine.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of an unprovoked war of aggression. Pope Francis said it was morally legitimate for nations to supply weapons to Ukraine to help the country defend itself from Russian aggression.
“This is a political decision which it can be moral, morally acceptable, if it is done under conditions of morality,” Francis said in an airborne news conference while travelling from a trip to Kazakhstan.
Francis also urged the Kyiv government to be open to eventual dialogue, even though it may “smell” because it would be difficult for the Ukrainian side.
In Washington, US officials said the United States will soon announce a new $US600 million ($900 million) weapons package for Ukraine’s military.