Bucha (Ukraine) (AFP), April 2 – Ukraine and Western countries accused Russian troops of war crimes on Sunday after the discovery of mass graves and “executed” civilians near kyiv, prompting calls for action at the International Criminal Court.
Britain, France, Germany, the United States and NATO all expressed horror after Ukrainian officials said on Saturday that nearly 300 bodies had been buried in mass graves. AFP saw at least 20 bodies, all in civilian clothes, scattered in a single street.
The city’s mayor, Anatoly Fedoruk, told AFP that 280 bodies had been buried in mass graves. A relief official said 57 people were found in a hastily dug trench behind a church.
About 10 were not buried or were only partially covered with soil.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called it a “deliberate massacre”, while President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces were committing “genocide”.
His spokesman, Sergiy Nikiforov, said earlier that Bucha’s murder “looked exactly like war crimes”.
“We found mass graves. We found people with their hands and legs tied up…and with gunshots, bullet holes, to the back of their heads,” he told the BBC.
“They were clearly civilians and they were executed.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the killings a ‘punch in the gut’ while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the violence, unheard of in Europe in decades, was ‘horrendous’ and “absolutely unacceptable”.
Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union have all called for those responsible to be brought to justice at the international tribunal in The Hague.
As a result, Ukrainian Kuleba called on G7 countries to impose immediate “devastating” sanctions against Russia.
But despite Western action targeting oligarchs and corporations – and calls to go further – the Kremlin has said it is not possible to completely isolate Russia.
“There can be no vacuum or complete isolation of Russia. It is technologically impossible in the modern world,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state television.
The world is “much bigger than Europe”, he said, adding: “Sooner or later we will have to build a dialogue, whether some foreigners like it or not”.
– “Tormented Ukraine” –
The worst European conflict in decades, triggered by the Russian invasion on February 24, has already claimed some 20,000 lives, according to Ukrainian estimates.
Nearly 4.2 million Ukrainians have fled the country, with nearly 40,000 of them pouring into neighboring countries in the past 24 hours alone, the UN refugee agency said.
An estimated 6.48 million people are internally displaced within Ukraine, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Pope Francis, visiting Malta on Sunday, appealed for refugees fleeing “sacrilegious war” in “tormented Ukraine” to be welcomed.
Several Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, have already accused Russian Vladimir Putin of being a “war criminal”.
Human Rights Watch said Russian troops may have committed war crimes against civilians in occupied areas of Chernigiv, Kharkiv and kyiv, including rape and summary executions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also alleged that Russian soldiers laid mines and other booby-traps as they retreated from northern Ukraine, warning returning residents to beware of tripwires and other hazards.
– Odessa shot –
The war crimes allegations came as the port city of Odessa, which was largely spared the conflict, was hit by airstrikes apparently targeting key infrastructure.
Plumes of thick black smoke rose above the strategic port city, after a series of explosions woke residents around 06:00 (03:00 GMT).
“We were woken up by the first explosion and then we saw a flash in the sky, then another, then another. I’ve lost count,” local resident Mykola, 22, told AFP.
The Russian Defense Ministry said it had targeted an oil refinery and three fuel storage facilities with “high-precision sea and air missiles”.
The depots supplied fuel to Ukrainian troops, he added.
Anton Herashchenko, adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, said: “Some of the missiles were shot down by air defense.”
The strikes took place while the UN humanitarian envoy, Martin Griffiths, was expected in Moscow and then in kyiv to demand an end to the fighting.
– Peace talks –
On the peace talks, Russia’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said it was too early for a high-level meeting between Zelensky and Putin on ending the conflict.
He said Kyiv had become “more realistic” in its approach to issues related to Ukraine’s neutral and non-nuclear status, but a draft agreement to be submitted to a summit meeting was not yet ready.
And he said he did not share the “optimism” of Ukrainian negotiators about the possibility of talks between the leaders of the two countries in Turkey.
His Ukrainian counterpart, David Arakhamia, said on Saturday that Moscow had “verbally” accepted the main Ukrainian proposals, raising hopes that talks to end the fighting were progressing.
Ukraine has offered to drop its aspirations to join NATO and declare official neutrality, if it obtains security guarantees from Western countries. It would also undertake not to host foreign military bases.
He proposed to temporarily put aside the question of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and two separatist territories in the eastern region of Donbass that Russia has recognized as independent.
Medinsky said Russia’s position on Crimea and Donbass “remains unchanged” and talks would resume via videoconference on Monday.
– ‘Freed’ –
As Russian forces withdraw from parts of the north, Moscow appears to be concentrating on eastern and southern Ukraine, where it already holds swaths of territory.
British defense intelligence said on Sunday morning that Russian air activity over the past week had focused on south-eastern Ukraine, “probably because Russia has concentrated its military operations in this zone”.
But he said Russia was having difficulty finding and destroying air systems, which “significantly affected their ability to support the advance of their ground forces”.
In his latest video message, Zelensky said Russian troops wanted to seize the disputed region of Donbass and southern Ukraine, promising “to defend our freedom, our land and our people”.
Ukraine claimed progress against Russian forces on Saturday, saying Irpin, Bucha, Gostomel and the entire Kyiv region had been “liberated”.
NATO’s Stoltenberg, however, warned that Russia’s claim to withdraw troops from kyiv was “not a withdrawal”, but Russia was repositioning its troops.
– Evacuation offer –
Russian efforts to consolidate its hold on the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine have been hampered by resistance from Mariupol despite devastating attacks that lasted for weeks.
At least 5,000 residents have been killed in the beleaguered southern port city, officials say, while the remaining 160,000 face shortages of food, water and electricity.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said its team left for Mariupol on Saturday to attempt another evacuation, after being forced to turn back the day before.
A Lithuanian filmmaker, Mantas Kvedaravicius, 45, was killed as he tried to flee, the Ukrainian army said.