IZIUM, Ukraine — Investigators digging through what appears to be one of the largest mass burial sites discovered in Ukraine found evidence of atrocities, including torture, on land recently retaken from Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy said on Friday.
In a video he apparently rushed to underscore the gravity of the finds just hours after exhumations began, Zelenskyy said hundreds of civilian adults and children, as well as soldiers, were found “tortured , shot down, killed by shelling” near the Pishchanske cemetery in Izium. . He cited evidence of atrocities, such as a body with a rope around its neck and broken arms.
In the video, Zelenskyy said more than 400 graves had been discovered at the site, but the number of victims was not yet known. Zelenskyy, who visited the Izium region on Wednesday, said the findings again showed the need for world leaders to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that Russia will continue the war despite the success of the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Speaking to reporters on Friday after attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Putin said the ‘liberation’ of the entire territory of Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbass remains the goal principal of Russia.
He added that “we are in no hurry” to achieve the stated goals, noting that Russia has only committed volunteer soldiers to the operation.
Digging in the rain, workers pulled body after body from the sandy soil of a pine forest near Izium. Protected by full suits and rubber gloves, they gently patted the rotting remains of the victims’ clothing, apparently looking for things that could identify them.
Ukrainian forces gained access to the site after retaking the northeastern city and much of the wider Kharkiv region in a counter-offensive that suddenly changed the momentum of the nearly seven-month war. Ukrainian officials also found evidence of torture elsewhere in the region. The UN human rights office said it would investigate.
Associated Press reporters who visited the Izium site saw graves among the pines, marked with simple wooden crosses. Most were numbered in the 400s.
The majority of those buried were thought to be civilians, but a marker on a mass grave said it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, the war continued to claim lives and wreak havoc.
– Ukraine’s presidential office says Russian shelling killed five civilians and injured 18 others in 24 hours. Missile strikes were also reported, with Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih among the targets for a third straight day on Friday. Air raid sirens also blared in the capital, Kyiv.
— Other killings targeting pro-Russian separatist officials have been reported in areas under their control. Separatist authorities said an explosion killed the prosecutor general of the self-proclaimed republic in the Lugansk region. Moscow-backed authorities said two Russian-installed officials were also killed in Berdyansk, a town in the Zaporizhzhia region occupied earlier in the war. And local authorities reported at least one person killed and 10 injured in a Ukrainian missile strike on an administrative building in Russian-occupied Kherson.
– To bolster the Ukrainian offensive, the Biden administration announced another $600 million military aid package.
A resident of Izium, Sergei Gorodko, said that among the hundreds buried in individual graves, dozens of adults and children were killed in a Russian airstrike on an apartment building.
He said he pulled some of them out of the rubble “with my own hands”.
Prior to the exhumation, investigators equipped with metal detectors scanned the site for hidden explosives. Soldiers stretched red and white duct tape between the trees to mark off parts of the site. A few graves had wreaths hanging from the crosses, and some bore the names of people.
Izium was a key supply hub for Russian forces until they withdrew in recent days. Izium city councilor Maksym Strelnikov told reporters that hundreds of people had died during the fighting and after the city was captured by Russia in March. Many were unable to secure a proper burial, he said.
His claims could not be immediately verified, but similar scenes unfolded in other towns captured by Russian forces, including Mariupol.
Strelnikov said countless people have also died from the lack of proper health care since “the city’s medical infrastructure was destroyed”. Most of the city’s 47,000 pre-war residents fled to Ukrainian-held territories. Strelnikov said there were 10,000 residents left in the ruined city, bracing for more hardship with the onset of winter and most of the infrastructure destroyed.
Ukraine’s national police chief Ihor Klymenko said “torture chambers” had also been discovered in recaptured towns and villages in the Kharkiv region. The claim could not be independently verified.
Seven Sri Lankan students who fell into Russian hands in Kupiansk, also in the Kharkiv region, also said they were detained and mistreated, he said.
“They are scared, they have been mistreated,” he said. They include “a woman who can barely speak” and two with torn toenails.
Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Yevhen Enin said bodies exhumed in the area also showed “traces of violent death, but also torture – severed ears, etc. This is just the beginning”.
“All these traces of war crimes are now carefully documented by us. And we know from Bucha’s experience that the worst crimes can only be revealed over time,” Enin said in an interview with Ukrainian radio NV.
This story has been updated to correct that seven Sri Lankan students, not six, said they fell into Russian hands.
Associated Press reporters Hanna Arhirova and Jon Gambrell in Kyiv and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed reporting.
Follow AP war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine