Western diplomats reacted with shock to the discovery of a mass burial site and evidence of torture in Izyum days after the town was retaken from Russian forces during Ukraine’s successful offensive in the region northeast of Kharkiv.
Diplomats said Russia must be held responsible after officials said most of the victims at the burial site were civilians.
US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said Twitter that news of the mass grave in Izyum “should strengthen our collective resolve to hold Russia accountable for its atrocities and to support Ukraine in its efforts to defend its homeland and liberate its citizens who are suffering horribly under Russian forces.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia was behaving “horribly” and was likely responsible for war crimes, while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the European Union was “deeply shocked” by the discovery of the graves.
“We condemn these atrocities in the strongest terms possible,” Borrell said in a statement. statement. “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has left a trail of blood and destruction across Ukraine.”
WATCH: RFE/RL’s Maryan Kushnir visited the site and spoke with a missing persons officer about the victim identification process. Later exhumations discovered bodies with ropes tied around their hands.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said at least 440 bodies had been recovered from the Izyum site.
This grim discovery prompted President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to once again call on the international community to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
“Russia has already become the biggest source of terrorism in the world, and no other terrorist power leaves behind so many dead. This must be recognized legally. The world must act. Russia must be recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism “, said Zelenskiy. in a statement on Telegram.
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Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synyehubov said 99% of bodies exhumed so far showed signs of violent death.
“There are several bodies with their hands tied behind their backs and one person is buried with a rope around their neck,” he said on Telegram.
He added that around 200 law enforcement officers were working at the site and the bodies would be sent for forensic examination to determine the exact cause of death.
Ukrainian police chief Ihor Klymenko said based on preliminary findings, most of those buried at the site were civilians.
Asked if the Izyum site contained mainly civilians or soldiers, Klymenko told a press conference: “On a preliminary estimate, civilians. Although we have information that there are also has soldiers, we haven’t recovered a single one yet.”
Klymenko also said that several torture sites had been discovered in the newly liberated areas.
“I can speak of the presence of at least 10 torture centers in settlements” in the Kharkiv region, he said.
He said “two torture centers were discovered in Balaklia”, a town in the northeast.
Thousands of Russian troops fled Izyum last week after occupying the town and using it as a logistics hub in the Kharkiv region. They left behind large quantities of ammunition and equipment.
Klymenko also said that 204 criminal cases investigating possible war crimes committed by Russian forces had been opened in the past week.
The UN human rights office said it would send a team to Izyum, and human rights group Amnesty International said the discovery of the mass burial site confirmed “our darkest fears”.
There was no immediate comment from Russia on the discovery of the graves. Moscow has previously denied targeting civilians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest comments on the war came after he attended a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan.
Speaking on September 16, Putin vowed to continue the war and said the “liberation” of Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbass region remained Russia’s main military objective.
“We are in no rush,” Putin said, adding that Russia had only deployed volunteer soldiers to fight in Ukraine. He also commented publicly for the first time on Kyiv’s recent military push into the northeast.
“Kyiv authorities announced that they have launched and are carrying out an active counter-offensive operation. Well, let’s see how it develops, how it ends,” Putin said.
He also warned that Moscow could step up its strikes on the country’s infrastructure. Referring to the recent strikes on a dam-reservoir in Kryviy Rih and the electricity supply to the Kharkiv region, Putin said: “Let’s assume this is a warning. If the situation continues to develop like this, the response will be more serious.
Putin also said that Russia is gradually gaining control over new regions of Ukraine.
Putin also met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the SCO summit. Erdogan told the gathered leaders that efforts were being made “to finalize the conflict in Ukraine through diplomacy as soon as possible”.
Putin told Erdogan, who helped broker a July deal to export grain and other goods through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, that Moscow was interested in forging closer ties with Ankara and ready to ” significantly increase” all exports to the country.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces repelled three Russian attacks north of the city of Donetsk, the army general staff said in a Facebook post.
Sea-based missiles also targeted areas in the Odessa region but were destroyed by anti-aircraft units, he added.
Russian forces launched attacks on several settlements on the Kharkiv frontline, the Ukrainian military said.
In its daily intelligence bulletin, the British Ministry of Defense said on September 16 that after more than six months of war, “the impact of Russia’s manpower challenge has become increasingly serious,” prompting the Russian private military company Vagner Group, linked to the Kremlin, to try to recruit Russians. sentenced for service in Ukraine “since at least July”.
British intelligence newsletter said convicts were being offered a commutation of their sentences as well as cash incentives.
The bulletin says Russian military academies are shortening training courses and advancing cadet graduation dates. “It’s almost certainly so that the cadets can be deployed to support the operation in Ukraine,” he said.
Late on September 15, the White House announced $600 million in additional military aid to Ukraine as the United States prepares to support the Kyiv counteroffensive.
A White House memo said US President Joe Biden would use his Presidential Withdrawal Authority, which allows him to authorize the transfer of weapons from US stockpiles.
The Ministry of Defense said the aid consists of equipment and services, as well as training.