BUCHA, Ukraine – Growing evidence of atrocities against civilians exposed Ukraine’s horrific war toll, prompting world leaders on Sunday to threaten even tougher sanctions, including a gas industry lockdown lifeline of Russia, a step some had been loath to take.
In Bucha, a newly liberated suburb northwest of the capital, residents were still finding bodies in yards and roads days after Russian troops withdrew. A man dressed in a bright blue fleece was hunched over the steering wheel of a crashed car at a downtown intersection. Another man was lying on his back by the side of the road, a large bullet hole in the back of his head and his overturned green bicycle next to him.
But it was the discovery of corpses with bound wrists, images of which quickly multiplied online, that sparked the most international outrage.
“The Russian authorities will have to answer for these crimes”, said the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called the actions of the Russian military in Bucha and other towns around kyiv “acts of genocide”. And António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, expressing his “shock” at the images of dead civilians, said: “It is essential that an independent investigation leads to effective accountability”.
Even as Moscow’s troops retreated from kyiv, Russia continued to hit Ukraine’s southern coast with airstrikes on infrastructure on Sunday. He described the withdrawal as a tactical move to regroup his forces for a major push into the Donbass region to the east and south.
Missiles hit the Black Sea port cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv, Ukrainian officials say, and Ukraine’s Southern Air Defense Command said it intercepted two sea-based Russian cruise missiles The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the strikes, saying it had destroyed an oil refinery and three oil depots around Odessa that “were used to resupply Ukrainian military units” near Mykolaiv.
But on Sunday, the world’s attention focused more on where the Russian forces were than where they are now, with Bucha in the front line.
As Ukrainian forces swarmed the suburbs, civilians emerged from basement dugouts to find themselves in a landscape strewn with the bodies and wreckage of destroyed tanks.
The dead were so high that local officials had to dig a mass grave outside a church, where a coroner, Serhiy Kaplishny, said around 40 bodies had been laid during the occupation. In an interview, Mr Kaplishny said his team collected more than 100 bodies during and after the fighting, including those of more than a dozen men who had their hands tied and had been shot in the head.
Reporters from The New York Times, The Associated Press and other international media arriving in Bucha and nearby towns also filmed and photographed plainclothes bodies strewn in the streets and at least nine lying together in a yard. In several cases, the hands were tied behind the back.
The bodies of 410 people who appeared to be civilians have been found in the Kyiv region, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said in a Facebook post on Sunday. The Times was unable to independently verify this figure.
“We are being destroyed and exterminated, and this is happening in 21st century Europe,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday dismissed all accusations that its troops committed atrocities in Bucha, saying “not a single” civilian was injured while the town was under Russian control. He said images and video footage of the area had been “staged by the Ukrainian government”.
But as evidence of the apparent massacre of civilians mounted, world leaders said Moscow was responsible for the violence and should be held accountable.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned “Russia’s despicable attacks on innocent civilians in Irpin and Bucha”, and even Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, who was wary of antagonizing Moscow, said that c ‘was “impossible to remain indifferent facing the horrific images of the city of Bucha.
“Intentionally harming a civilian population is a war crime and I strongly condemn it,” Lapid said.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in an interview on CNN, said the killings should not go unpunished. “We said before Russia’s aggression that we thought it was likely that they would commit atrocities,” Mr Blinken said, adding: “We cannot become numb to this. We cannot normalize this.
Outrage over civilian deaths could move the needle on the European Union, which has so far pushed back on growing calls from Ukraine, and President Biden, to impose sanctions on Russian oil and gas , citing its reliance on Russian fuels.
In what would mark a significant shift in her country’s stance, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said that in light of Bucha’s atrocities, the bloc should consider banning imports of Russian gas. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said on Twitter that further EU sanctions against Russia “are on the way”.
On Sunday, a leading human rights group said it had documented “apparent war crimes” against Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces that had occupied Chernihiv, Kharkiv and kyiv. Citing interviews with eyewitnesses, victims and local residents, the group, Human Rights Watch, documented the case of a woman who was repeatedly raped, as well as two summary killings and other episodes of violence against civilians.
The report painted a grueling picture of the brutality in Bucha even before the stories that emerged after the withdrawal of Russian forces.
An eyewitness quoted in the report described an execution in early March, in which Russian soldiers forced five men to kneel on the side of a road and pull their shirts over their heads before shooting one of them in the head.
“The cases we have documented are corroborated by these recent allegations,” said Yulia Gorbunova, the author of the Human Rights Watch report, referring to recent reports circulating from Bucha. “What is emerging now, if confirmed, is quite gruesome and gives an indication of the scale of these atrocities,” she said.
War crimes cases can be taken to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but prosecution success is skyrocketing, experts say.
“It would probably be difficult to prove in court,” said David Scheffer, an international law expert. “The circumstances are not known. Who executed them. Who tied their hands. This would require a very difficult and detailed investigation.
“It’s very different from a military strike on a city,” he said.
Charges can also be brought to the International Court of Justice, but the UN Security Council would be responsible for enforcing any rulings against Russia; as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia would have a right of veto over any decision.
The Russian government has consistently denied claims that its forces committed war crimes in Ukraine, even as there were reports of numerous casualties following the shelling of a maternity ward and theater in Mariupol. In occupied Bucha, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that residents “can move freely around the city” and are allowed to leave.
“This is another provocation,” the ministry said of the new reports of atrocities.
But the stories from Ukraine and the grisly images could prompt additional military aid to Ukraine, in addition to further punishing Russia.
US lawmakers have said Bucha’s reports warrant additional aid to Ukraine, with some calling for the supply of more surface-to-air missiles to help Ukrainian forces. “We need to do more to help Ukraine, and we need to do it faster,” noted Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio.
In the beleaguered port city of Mariupol, residents are still awaiting the arrival of an aid convoy that has been trying to reach them since Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Sunday. Late Thursday, Russia announced a ceasefire to allow evacuations out of Mariupol, but humanitarian efforts to reach the city have repeatedly stalled.
Carlotta Gall and Andrew E. Kramer reported from Bucha, and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City. The report was provided by Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul; Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland; Jane Arraffrom Lvivm Ukraine; Cassandra Vinograd from London; Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels; Monika Pronczuk from Przemysl, Poland; and Jesus Jiménez from New York.