Ukrainian authorities have found 440 graves at a collective burial site in Izium, a town in the east recently resumed Russian forces, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a Twitter post on Friday.
Earlier Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian and international journalists would visit the site to see what had been discovered. “We want the world to know what is really happening and what the Russian occupation has led to,” Zelensky said.
Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications said on Thursday that some of the graves discovered in Izium were “fresh” and the corpses buried there were “mostly civilians”.
Izium came under intense Russian artillery attack in April, and the city, located near the border between Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, became an important hub for military invaders during five months of occupation.
Ukrainian forces retook control of the city on Saturday, dealing a strategic blow to the Russian military assault from the east.
Photos released Friday by Ukraine’s Defense Ministry showed numerous crosses on mounds in a wooded area near Izium, as well as a larger pit dug into the forest floor.
Zelensky said in his remarks on Thursday that Russia should be held responsible for the deaths there and in other cities where large numbers of bodies were found.
“Ring, Mariupol and now, unfortunately, Izium… Russia leaves death everywhere. And must be responsible for it. The world must hold Russia responsible for this war. We will do everything for that,” he added.
Serhii Bolvinov, the chief investigator of the Kharkiv region police, earlier told Britain’s Sky News that there may be other mass burial sites in the Kharkiv region.
Speaking specifically of the 440 graves, Bolvinov told Sky News that exhumations so far have shown the victims died of a variety of causes.
“We know some were killed (shot), some died from artillery fire, so-called mine blast trauma. Some died because of the airstrikes. We also have information that many bodies have not yet been identified. Thus, the reasons for the death will be established during the investigations,” Bolvinov said, as quoted by Sky News.
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Meanwhile Oleh Kotenko, Ukraine’s Commissioner for Missing Persons, said in a Telegram post that operations to search for the remains of “fallen heroes” were proceeding with caution across the region.
“The biggest problem is that some areas are still mined. Despite this, we continue to work, because we must bring every hero home so that families can honor the memory of soldiers who died for Ukraine with dignity as soon as possible,” Kotenko said.
Zelensky visited Izium on Wednesday and told reporters he was “shocked” by the number of “buildings destroyed” and “people killed” as a result of the Russian occupation.
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Moscow was using Izium as a launching pad for southward attacks in the Donetsk and Kupyansk region, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) north of Izium, and as a rail hub to resupply its forces.
Zelensky also thanked foreign governments for sending investigators and prosecutors to investigate alleged human rights abuses by occupying forces in Ukraine, adding that all occupied areas would eventually return.
Ukrainian forces conducted a sustained military offensive, particularly in the northeastern and southern regions of the country.
Zelensky said on Tuesday that 8,000 square kilometers (3,088 square miles) of territory had now been liberated by Ukrainian forces so far this month, with around half of the area still under ” stabilization”.