Western diplomats have reacted with shock to the discovery of a mass burial site and evidence of torture in Izyum days after the city was retaken from Russian forces during Ukraine’s successful offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
The diplomats said Russia must be held accountable after officials indicated that most victims at the burial site were civilians.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said on Twitter that the news of the mass burial site in Izyum “should reinforce 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 suffering horribly under Russia’s forces.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia was behaving “horrifically” and was likely responsible for war crimes, while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the European Union was “deeply shocked” at the discovery of the graves.
“We condemn these atrocities in the strongest possible terms,” Borrell said in a statement. “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been leaving a trail of blood and destruction across Ukraine.”
French President Emmanuel Macron added his voice to the outcry, saying that what happened in Izyum were atrocities.
“I condemn in the strongest terms the atrocities committed in Izyum, Ukraine, under Russian occupation,” Macron said on Twitter. Those responsible “will have to answer for their acts. There is no peace without justice.”
WATCH: RFE/RL’s Maryan Kushnir visited the site and spoke with a missing-persons officer about the process of identifying victims. Subsequent exhumations uncovered bodies with ropes tied around their hands.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said at least 440 bodies had been found at the site in Izyum.
The grim discovery prompted President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to 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 deaths. This must be recognized legally. The world must act. Russia must be recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Zelenskiy said in a statement on Telegram.
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Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synyehubov said 99 percent of the 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 his neck,” he said on Telegram.
He added that about 200 law enforcement officers were working at the site, and the bodies will be sent for forensic examination to determine the exact cause of death.
Ukrainian police chief Ihor Klymenko said that based on preliminary findings, most of the people buried at the site were civilians.
Asked if the Izyum site contained mainly civilians or soldiers, Klymenko told a news conference: “On a preliminary estimate, civilians. Although we have information that there are soldiers there too, we haven’t recovered a single one yet.”
Klymenko also said several torture sites were found in the newly liberated areas.
“I can talk 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 hub in the Kharkiv region. They left behind large amounts of ammunition and equipment.
Klymenko also said 204 criminal cases investigating possible war crimes committed by Russian forces had been opened over the past week.
The UN human rights office said it would send a team to Izyum, and the 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 made his first public comments on the war since Ukraine’s counteroffensive after he attended a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Uzbekistan.
Speaking on September 16, Putin vowed to press on with the war and said the “liberation” of Ukraine’s entire eastern Donbas region remained Russia’s main military goal.
“We aren’t in a 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 in the northeast.
“The Kyiv authorities announced that they have launched and are conducting an active counteroffensive operation. Well, let’s see how it develops, how it ends up,” Putin said.
He also warned that Moscow could ramp up its strikes on the country’s infrastructure. Referring to recent strikes on a reservoir dam in Kryviy Rih and electricity supplies in the Kharkiv region, Putin said: “Let’s assume they’re a warning. If the situation continues to develop like this, then the response will be more serious.”
Putin also said Russia was gradually taking control of new areas of Ukraine.
Putin also met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the SCO summit. Erdogan told the assembled 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 deal struck in July to export grain and other commodities through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, that Moscow was interested in building 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 military’s General Staff said in a Facebook post.
Sea-based missiles also targeted areas of the Odesa region but were destroyed by antiaircraft units, it said.
Russian forces had launched attacks on several settlements on the Kharkiv front line, the Ukrainian military said.
In its daily intelligence bulletin, the British Defense Ministry said on September 16 that after more than six months of war, “the impact of Russia’s manpower challenge has become increasingly severe,” prompting Kremlin-linked Russian private military company Vagner Group to attempt recruiting Russian convicts for service in Ukraine “since at least July.”
The British intelligence bulletin said convicts were being offered commutation of their sentences as well as cash incentives.
The bulletin said Russian military academies are shortening training courses and bringing cadets graduation dates forward. “This is almost certainly so cadets can be deployed to support the Ukraine operation,” it said.
Late on September 15 the White House announced an additional $600 million in military aid for Ukraine as the United States moves to support Kyiv’s counteroffensive.
A White House memo said U.S. President Joe Biden would use his Presidential Drawdown Authority, which allows him to authorize the transfer of weapons from U.S. stocks.
The Defense Department said the aid consists of equipment and services, as well as training.