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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Graham Russell, and Daniel Boffey in Lviv

Russia now synonymous with Bucha killings, says Zelenskiy

A satellite image shows a mass grave site near the Church of St Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints, in Bucha, Ukraine.
A satellite image shows a mass grave site near the Church of St Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in Bucha, Ukraine. Photograph: Maxar Technologies/Reuters

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that Russia’s public image is now one of torture and execution after the retreat of Russian forces in the town of Bucha led to the discovery of the killing of hundreds of civilians.

Calling Russian soldiers “murderers”, “butchers” and “rapists”, Zelenskiy said late on Sunday: “your culture and human appearance perished together with the Ukrainian men and women”. He warned that “even worse things” may be found in other occupied regions.

Ukrainian officials said the bodies of 410 civilians have been found in Kyiv-area towns that were recently retaken from Russian forces. Satellite images taken late last week show a 14-metre (45ft) mass grave in Bucha near the Church of St Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints. Maxar, the company that took the pictures, said the first signs of excavation for a mass grave there were seen on 10 March, several weeks into the invasion.

Witnesses of alleged atrocities in Bucha told the Guardian that Russian soldiers had fired on men fleeing the town, and had killed civilians at will. Taras Schevchenko, 43, said Russian soldiers had refused to allow men to leave through a humanitarian corridor, instead shooting at them as they fled across an open field. Bodies, he said, were scattered on the pavements, with some of those killed having been “squashed by tanks … like animal skin rugs”.

Shevchenko’s mother, Yevdokia, 77, said she had witnessed an elderly man who had challenged a Russian soldier being shot dead as his wife stood next to him. “They shot him dead, and ordered the woman to leave,” she said. The accounts could not be independently verified.

Photographs from the town showed a scene of devastation, with hunks of charred and destroyed tanks and armoured vehicles lined up along one street, along with dead bodies.

Zelenskiy on Sunday made a surprise video appearance at the Grammy Awards celebration in Las Vegas and appealed to viewers to support his country “in any way you can”.

“Fill the silence with your music. Fill it today, to tell our story. Support us in any way you can. Any, but not silence,” Zelenskiy said in English in a video introducing John Legend’s performance of Free and featured Ukrainian musicians and a reading by Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuck.

Russia denied responsibility for the killing of civilians. Its defence ministry described the photos and videos from towns such as Bucha as “another staged performance by the Kyiv regime”, echoing a similar claim made after the bombing of a children’s and maternity hospital in Mariupol.

Figures around the world have condemned the brutality of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s forces.

The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, said the “despicable” killings added to evidence of Russian war crimes, while the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, expressed shock about the “terrible and horrifying” footage from Bucha. “Streets littered with bodies. Bodies buried in makeshift conditions. There is talk of women, children and the elderly among the victims,” Scholz said. His defence minister, Christine Lambrecht, said the European Union should consider a ban on gas imports from Russia.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken described the images from retaken towns as “a punch in the gut” while United Nations secretary general António Guterres called for an independent investigation.

The head of the European Council, Charles Michel, said he was shocked by “haunting images of atrocities committed by [the] Russian army”, adding that “further EU sanctions and support are on their way”.

The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said she was “appalled by reports of unspeakable horrors in areas from which Russia is withdrawing”. An independent investigation was urgently needed, she said, and “perpetrators of war crimes will be held accountable”.

Zelenskiy said he expected a UN security council meeting on Tuesday to discuss the atrocities, and was scathing on Sunday night of a historic western policy of “appeasing” Russia by failing to make Ukraine a Nato member 14 years ago at a summit in Bucharest. He invited former German and French leaders Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy to visit Bucha “to see what the policy of concessions” to Russia has led to, and urged Ukraine’s allies to do more than increase sanctions.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia warned on Monday against inferring much from the withdrawal of Russian forces around Kyiv. “They are now regrouping. They are using it as an operational pause and I’m sure they will mount another assault and therefore we need support of the free world to help us fight,” said ambassador Vasyl Myroshnychenko.

“We see civilians’ dead bodies lying around the city, many of them have their hands tied up. We are now collecting the evidence from the witnesses,” Myroshnychenko said of the recent discoveries in town such as Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel. “Multiple rapes of women, children killed. This is a massacre.”

The west needed to provide heavy weapons, air defence systems, anti-ship missiles, armoured, vehicles, tanks and planes to help Ukraine, the ambassador said. “It’s only two and a half flight from Kyiv to Paris. We’re in the middle of Europe and this is happening now in the 21st century.”

In other developments:

  • Work is under way to bring the town of Bucha “back to life”, said Zelenskiy, with critical infrastructure such as power, water and hospital care being restored.

  • The Ukrainian military claimed in its operational report on Monday morning that Russia has launched a “hidden mobilisation” of around 60,000 soldiers to replenish units lost in Ukraine.

  • Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba urged the international criminal court and international organisations to come to the region to collect evidence of Russian war crimes. Speaking on Times Radio on Sunday, he said Bucha was a “deliberate massacre”. Describing Russia as “worse than Isis”, he said Russian forces were guilty of murder, torture, rape and looting. He also urged G7 countries to impose “devastating” sanctions immediately.

  • The capture of Mariupol is a “key objective” of the Russian invasion, UK’s ministry of defence said as heavy fighting continues in the southeastern city.

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