Ukraine on Sunday searched for its war dead in Izium and other towns in the northeastern part of the country it reclaimed from Russia in a lightning advance earlier this month.
Izium Mayor Valery Marchenko told state television that “the exhumation is under way, the graves are being dug up and all the remains are being transported to Kharkiv.
“The work will continue for another two weeks, there are many burials,” Marchenko said. “No new ones have been found yet, but the services are looking for possible burials.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Saturday that investigators had discovered new evidence of torture inflicted against some of the soldiers buried in Izium, one of more than 20 towns that Ukraine recaptured in the northeastern Kharkiv region that Russia had held for months. He said that 17 bodies were found at one site, some of which bore signs of torture.
Ukrainian officials said last week 440 bodies were discovered in woodlands near Izium, with most of the dead identified as civilians, Ukraine said the discovery proved war crimes had been committed by Russian forces. Emergency workers have been exhuming the remains.
Oleksandr Ilienkov, the chief of the prosecutor’s office for the Kharkiv region, told the Reuters news agency at the site on Friday: “One of the bodies [found] has evidence of a ligature pattern and a rope around the neck, tied hands.” Forensic examination of the bodies is continuing.
Moscow has repeatedly denied it has targeted civilians during its nearly seven-month invasion. The Kremlin has not commented publicly on the discovery of the graves.
The head of the pro-Russian administration that abandoned the Kharkiv region earlier this month accused Ukrainians of staging the atrocities at Izium. “I have not heard anything about burials,” Vitaly Ganchev told Rossiya-24 state television.
Meanwhile, as the fighting rages on, a British intelligence report said Sunday that Russia has widened its attacks on civilian infrastructure in the past week.
Five civilians were killed in Russian attacks in the Donetsk region in the last day. Ukrainian officials said that several dozen high-rise and private buildings, gas pipelines and power lines were damaged by Russian strikes in Nikopol.
The British report said, “As it faces setbacks on the front lines, Russia has likely extended the locations it is prepared to strike in an attempt to directly undermine the morale of the Ukrainian people and government.”
U.S. President Joe Biden is again warning Russian President Vladimir Putin against using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. You will change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” he said in an interview with CBS News scheduled to air Sunday night. Biden would not comment specifically on a U.S. response if Russia were to use chemical or nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“They’ll become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been,” he added. “And depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”
It was not Biden’s first warning to his Russian counterpart. Biden said in March that the NATO military alliance would respond “in kind” to any use of weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.
“We will respond if he uses it,” Biden said, referring to Putin. “The nature of the response depends on the nature of the use.”
He spoke after meeting with partners from NATO along with the Group of Seven leading industrialized economies and the European Union.
Just days into the invasion of Ukraine, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, prompting the White House to assemble a team of national security officials — the so-called Tiger Team — to study potential responses in the event Russia deployed chemical, biological or nuclear weapons against Ukraine, neighboring nations or NATO convoys of weapons and aid headed for Ukraine.
In 2000, Russia updated its military doctrine to allow the first use of nuclear weapons “in response to large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation,” according to the U.S.-based Arms Control Association. The 1997 version of the doctrine had allowed the first use of nuclear arms only “in case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation.”
The newest version also states for the first time that Russia has the right to use nuclear weapons to respond to all “weapons of mass destruction” attacks.
In another development, The New York Times reports that Ukrainian military personnel in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut say they believe they are fighting Russian prisoners instead of Russian soldiers.
The publication said it has analyzed a video posted online that apparently shows representatives of The Wagner Group, a private military company, promising inmates they could win their freedom if they completed a six–month, combat tour in Ukraine. The Times said, however, that the video could not be verified.
President Putin has said seizing Bakhmut is one of the main goals of its invasion of Ukraine.
Some material in this report came from Reuters.