Deadly blasts hit buildings occupied by Russian occupation officials in Ukraine’s Kherson and Luhansk regions
Western diplomats have reacted in shock to the discovery of a mass grave site and evidence of torture in Izyum days after the city was recaptured by Russian forces during Ukraine’s successful offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
The diplomats said Russia must be held accountable after officials said most of the victims were at the gravesite civilians.
US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said Twitter that the news of the mass grave at Izyum “should strengthen our common 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 terribly at the hands of Russian forces.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia is behaving “terribly” and is likely responsible for war crimes, while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the European Union was “deeply shocked” by the graves’ discovery.
“We condemn these atrocities in the strongest possible terms,” Borrell said in one expression. “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 to a missing persons officer about the process of identifying victims. Subsequent exhumations uncovered bodies with ropes tied around their hands.
At least 440 bodies were found at the Izyum site, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
The grim discovery prompted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to once again call on the international community to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
“Russia has already become the world’s largest source of terror, and no other terrorist power leaves as many dead in its wake. This must be legally recognised. The world must act. Russia must be recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Zelenskyy said in a statement telegram.
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Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synyehubov said 99 percent of the bodies exhumed so far showed signs of a violent death.
“There are several bodies with their hands tied behind their backs and one person is buried with a rope around his neck,” he said on Telegram.
He added that about 200 law enforcement officers were working at the scene and the bodies would be sent for forensic examination to determine the exact cause of death.
Ukrainian Police Chief Ihor Klymenko said that according to preliminary findings, most of the people buried there are civilians.
When asked whether there were mainly civilians or soldiers at the Izyum site, Klymenko said at a press conference: “According to a preliminary estimate, civilians. Although we have information that there are also soldiers there, we have not yet recovered a single one.”
Klymenko also said several torture sites were found in the newly liberated areas.
“I can speak about the presence of at least 10 torture centers in settlements” in the Kharkiv region, he said.
He said, “Two torture centers were found in Balaklia, a town in the northeast.
Thousands of Russian soldiers fled Izyum last week after occupying the city and using it as a logistics center in the Kharkiv region. They left behind large amounts of ammunition and equipment.
Klymenko also said that 204 criminal cases investigating possible war crimes 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 grave confirmed “our darkest fears”.
There was no immediate comment from Russia on the discovery of the tombs. Moscow has previously denied attacking civilians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest comments on the war came after he attended a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan.
On September 16, Putin vowed to continue the war, saying the “liberation” of Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbass region remains Russia’s top military goal.
“We are in no hurry,” Putin said, adding that Russia had only used volunteer soldiers to fight in Ukraine. He also commented publicly for the first time on Kiev’s recent military push in the northeast.
“The Kiev authorities announced that they have launched and are carrying out an active counteroffensive. Well, let’s see how it develops, how it ends,” Putin said.
He also warned that Moscow could step up its strikes against the country’s infrastructure. Referring to the recent strikes on a dam in Kryviy Rih and electricity supply in the Kharkiv region, Putin said: “Let’s assume they are a warning. If the situation develops like this, then the reaction will be more serious.”
Putin also said Russia is gradually taking control of new areas of Ukraine.
On the sidelines of the SCO summit, Putin also met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan told the assembled leaders that efforts were being made “to end the conflict in Ukraine as soon as possible through diplomacy.”
Putin told Erdogan, who helped broker an agreement struck in July to export grain and other commodities through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, that Moscow is keen to develop closer ties with Ankara and is willing to ban all exports to the country ” to increase significantly”.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian forces have repelled three Russian attacks north of the city of Donetsk, the military general staff said in a Facebook post.
Sea-launched missiles also targeted areas in the Odessa region but were destroyed by anti-aircraft units, sources said.
Russian forces have attacked several frontline settlements in Kharkiv, the Ukrainian military said.
In its Daily Intelligence Bulletin on September 16, Britain’s Defense Ministry said that after more than six months of war, “the impact of the Russian manpower challenge has become increasingly severe,” prompting Kremlin-affiliated Russian private military company Vagner Group to try Russians to recruit convicts for service in Ukraine “since at least July”.
The British Secret Service Notice said convicts were offered commutation of their sentences as well as monetary incentives.
According to the Bulletin, Russian military academies are shortening training courses and bringing cadets’ graduation dates forward. “This is almost certainly so that cadets can be deployed to support the operation in Ukraine,” it said.
Late September 15, the White House announced an additional $600 million in military aid to Ukraine as the United States seeks to support Kiev’s counteroffensive.
A White House memo said US President Joe Biden would use his Presidential Drawdown Authority, allowing him to authorize the transfer of US-held weapons.
The Ministry of Defence said The aid consists of equipment and services as well as training.