BUCHA, Ukraine (AP) — Bodies with bound hands, close-range gunshot wounds and signs of torture lay scattered in a city on the outskirts of Kyiv after Russian soldiers withdrew from the area. Ukrainian authorities accused the departing forces on Sunday of committing war crimes and leaving behind a “scene from a horror movie”.
As images of the bodies — of people whom residents said were killed indiscriminately — began to emerge from Bucha, a slew of European leaders condemned the atrocities and called for tougher sanctions against Moscow.
So far, the bodies of 410 civilians have been found in Kyiv-area towns that were recently retaken from Russian forces, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Iryna Venediktova, said.
Associated Press journalists saw the bodies of at least 21 people in various spots around Bucha, northwest of the capital. One group of nine, all in civilian clothes, were scattered around a site that residents said Russian troops used as a base. They appeared to have been killed at close range. At least two had their hands tied behind their backs, one was shot in the head, another’s legs were bound.
Ukrainian officials laid the blame for the killings in Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs squarely at the feet of Russian troops, with the president calling them evidence of genocide. But Russia’s Defense Ministry rejected the accusations as “provocation”.
The discoveries followed the Russian retreat from the area around the capital, territory that has seen heavy fighting since troops invaded Ukraine from three directions on Feb. 24. Troops who swept in from Belarus to the north spent weeks trying to clear a path to Kyiv, but their advance stalled in the face of resolute defence from Ukraine’s forces.
Moscow now says it is focusing its offensive on the country’s east, but it also pressed a siege on a city in the north and continued to strike cities elsewhere in a war that has left thousands dead and forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee their country.
Russian troops rolled into Bucha in the early days of the invasion and stayed up to March 30. With those forces gone, residents gave harrowing accounts Sunday, saying soldiers shot and killed civilians without any apparent reason.
One resident, who refused to give his name out of fear for his safety, said that Russian troops went building to building and took people out of the basements where they were hiding, checking their phones for any evidence of anti-Russian activity and taking them away or shooting them.
Hanna Herega, another resident, said Russian troops shot a neighbour who had gone out to gather wood for heating.
“He went to get some wood when all of a sudden they (Russians) started shooting. They hit him a bit above the heel, crushing the bone, and he fell down,” Herega said. “Then they shot off his left leg completely, with the boot. Then they shot him all over (the chest). And another shot went slightly below the temple. It was a controlled shot to the head.”
The AP also saw two bodies, that of a man and a woman, wrapped in plastic that residents said they had covered and placed in a shaft until a proper funeral could be arranged.
The resident who refused to be identified, said the man was killed as he left a home.
“He put his hands up, and they shot him,” he said.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, described bodies lying the streets of the suburbs of Irpin and Hostomel as well as Bucha as a “scene from a horror movie”. He alleged that some of the women found dead had been raped before being killed, and the Russians then burned the bodies.
“This is genocide,” Zelenskyy told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
In a post later Sunday on Telegram, he asked Russian mothers to watch what is happening, saying they have raised “murderers, marauders, executioners”.
But Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the photos and videos of dead bodies “have been stage managed by the Kyiv regime for the Western media”. It said Bucha’s mayor did not mention any abuses a day after Russian troops left.
The ministry charged said “not a single civilian has faced any violent action by the Russian military” in Bucha.
In Motyzhyn, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Kyiv, residents told AP on Sunday that Russian troops killed the town’s mayor, her husband and her son, and threw their bodies into a pit in a pine forest behind houses where Russian forces had slept. Inside the pit, AP journalists saw four bodies of people who appeared to have been shot at close range. The mayor’s husband had his hands behind his back, with a piece of rope nearby, and a piece of plastic wrapped around his eyes like a blindfold.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Sunday that the mayor was killed while being held by Russian forces.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko called on other nations to immediately end Russian gas imports, saying they were funding the killings.
“Not a penny should go to Russia anymore,” Klitschko told German newspaper, Bild. “That’s bloody money used to slaughter people. The gas and oil embargo must come immediately.”
Officials in France, Germany, Italy, Estonia and the UK separately condemned what was being described, and vowed that Russia would be held accountable.
“This is not a battlefield, it’s a crime scene,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted.
Ukrainian authorities said they were documenting evidence to add to their case for prosecuting Russian officials for war crimes. The bodies found outside Kyiv are being examined by prosecutors and other specialists, the prosecutor-general said on Facebook.
As Russian forces retreated from the area around the capital, they pressed their sieges in other parts of the country. Russia has said it is directing troops to the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
In that region, Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov that has seen some of the war’s greatest suffering, remained cut off. About 100,000 civilians — less than a quarter of the pre-war population of 430,000 — are believed to be trapped there with little or no food, water, fuel and medicine.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Sunday that a team sent Saturday to help evacuate residents had yet to reach the city.
Ukrainian authorities said Russia agreed days ago to allow safe passage from the city, but similar agreements have broken down repeatedly under continued shelling.
The mayor of Chernihiv, which has also been cut off from shipments of food and other supplies for weeks, said Sunday that relentless Russian shelling has destroyed 70 per cent of the northern city.
On Sunday morning, Russian forces launched missiles on the Black Sea port of Odesa, in southern Ukraine, sending up clouds of dark smoke that veiled parts of the city. The Russian military said the targets were an oil processing plant and fuel depots.
The regional governor in Kharkiv said Sunday that Russian artillery and tanks launched over 20 strikes on Ukraine’s second-largest city and its outskirts in the country’s northeast over the past day.
In a town southeast of the city, Oleh Synyhubov said Russian troops fired on a convoy of buses that was trying to evacuate patients from a hospital that had been heavily damaged in shelling a day earlier. Synyehubov said about 70 patients needed to be taken away from the damaged hospital in Balakliya, but that the buses were not able to enter the town.
The head of Ukraine’s delegation in talks with Russia said Moscow’s negotiators informally agreed to most of a draft proposal discussed during face-to-face talks in Istanbul this week, but no written confirmation has been provided.
By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and NEBI QENA, Associated Press
Qena reported from Motyzhyn, Ukraine. Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.