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, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday.
The site near the northeastern city of Izium, recently recaptured from Russian forces, appears to be one of the largest discovered in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy spoke in a video he rushed out just hours after the exhumations began, apparently to underscore the gravity of the discovery. He said more than 440 graves have been found at the site but that the number of victims was not yet known.
Digging in the rain, workers hauled body after body out of the sandy soil in a misty pine forest near Izium. Protected by head-to-toe suits and rubber gloves, they gently felt through the decomposing remains of the victims’ clothing, seemingly looking for identifying items.
Associated Press journalists who visited the site saw graves marked with simple wooden crosses. Some of the markers bore people’s names and had flowers hanging from them. Before digging, investigators with metal detectors scanned the site for explosives, and soldiers strung red and white plastic tape between the trees.
Zelenskyy said hundreds of civilian adults and children, as well as soldiers, had been found near Izium’s Pishchanske cemetery after being tortured, shot or killed by artillery shelling.
Oleg Kotenko, the commissioner for issues of missing persons under special circumstances, uses his smartphone to film the unidentified graves of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers in the recently retaken area of Izium, Ukraine, Sept. 15, 2022.
He cited evidence of atrocities, such as a body with a rope around its neck and broken arms. In another sign of possible torture, one man was found with his hands tied, according to Serhiy Bohdan, the head of Kharikiv police investigations, and Ukraine’s commissioner for human rights, Dmytro Lubinets.
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.
Zelenskyy, 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.
“If the situation develops this way, our response will be more serious,” Putin told reporters Friday after attending a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan.
Russia has reported numerous explosions and fires at civilian infrastructure sites near Ukraine, as well munitions depots and other facilities. Ukraine has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks and refrained from commenting on others.