Evidence of torture at Ukraine mass burial site as Putin threatens to escalate war

Ukrainian authorities warned that their investigation was just beginning, and the scale of the killings could rise dramatically.

“The harsh reality indicates that the number of dead in Izium may be many times higher than the Bucha tragedy,” Oleg Kotenko, an official with the Ukrainian ministry tasked with reintegrating occupied territories, said on Telegram.

Bucha is a Kyiv suburb where authorities have said 458 bodies were found after a 33-day Russian occupation. Authorities say they have uncovered the bodies of more than 1,300 people elsewhere, many in mass graves in the Kyiv-area forest.

Zelensky, who visited the Izium area Wednesday, said the discoveries showed again the need for world leaders to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.

Meanwhile, in his first public comments on Ukraine’s recent battlefield gains, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to press on with the war and warned that Moscow could ramp up its strikes on the country’s vital infrastructure if Ukrainian forces target facilities in Russia.

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“If the situation develops this way, our response will be more serious,” Putin told reporters Friday after attending a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Uzbekistan.

Russia has reported numerous explosions and fires at civilian infrastructure sites near Ukraine, as well as munitions depots and other facilities. Ukraine has claimed responsibility for some attacks and refrained from commenting on others.

The “liberation” of Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbas region remained Russia’s main military goal, Putin said.

“We aren’t in a rush,” he said, adding that Russia has only deployed volunteer soldiers to fight in Ukraine.

Some hard-line Russian politicians and military bloggers have lamented manpower shortages and urged the Kremlin to follow Ukraine’s example and order broad mobilisation to beef up the ranks.

Ukrainian forces gained access to the site near Izium after recapturing the city and much of the wider Kharkiv region in a lighting advance that suddenly shifted the momentum in 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, and the human rights group Amnesty International said the discovery of the mass burial site confirmed “our darkest fears.”

“For every unlawful killing or other war crime, there must be justice and reparation for victims and their families and a fair trial and accountability for suspected perpetrators,” said Marie Struthers, the group’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Most of the people buried at the site were believed to be civilians, but a marker on one mass grave said it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.

Ukrainian soldiers inspect a church used as a Russian military hospital in Izyum.Credit:AP

Russian officials distanced themselves from responsibility for the site.

The Khariv region’s Russian-installed governor, Vitaly Ganchev, 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, claiming that Ukrainian troops had abandoned their dead, so Russian forces buried them.

Izium 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, some of whom he pulled out of rubble “with my own hands.”

Izium was a key supply hub for Russian forces until they withdrew in recent days. Izium city council member Maksym Strelnikov told reporters that hundreds of people had died during the fighting and after Russia seized the town in March. Many couldn’t be properly buried, he said.

Ukrainian civilians gather at the entrance of their apartment in the recently retaken Izyum.

Ukrainian civilians gather at the entrance of their apartment in the recently retaken Izyum.Credit:AP

His claims could not be immediately verified, but similar scenes have played out in other cities Russian forces captured, including Mariupol.

Ukraine’s national police chief, Ihor Klymenko, said “torture chambers” have been found in the Kharkiv region’s recaptured towns and villages. The claim could not be independently verified.

Seven Sri Lankan students who fell into Russian hands in Kupiansk, also in the Kharkiv region, have also said that they were held and mistreated, he said.

“They are scared, they were abused,” Klymenko said. They include “a woman who can barely speak” and two people with torn toe nails.

AP

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