Outrage at Russian 'war crimes' after civilians killed in Ukraine
Global outrage at accusations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine mounted on Sunday as the discovery of mass graves and "executed" civilians near Kyiv prompted vows of action at the International Criminal Court.
Britain, France, Germany, the United States, NATO and the United Nations all voiced horror at the reports of civilians being murdered in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv.
Ukrainian prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said 410 civilian bodies were recovered from areas around Kyiv recently retaken from Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials on Saturday said nearly 300 bodies had been buried in mass graves in Bucha. AFP saw at least 20 bodies, all in civilian clothing, strewn across a single street.
Russia denied the accusations and said Ukraine staged footage of the corpses.
Bucha's mayor Anatoly Fedoruk told AFP that 280 bodies were buried in mass graves. One rescue official said 57 people were found in one hastily dug trench behind a church.
About 10 were either unburied or only partially covered by earth.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called it a "deliberate massacre" while President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces were committing "genocide".
His spokesman, Sergiy Nikiforov, said earlier the Bucha killing "looks exactly like war crimes".
"We found people with their hands and with their legs tied up... and with shots, bullet holes, in the back of their head," he told the BBC.
"They were clearly civilians and they were executed."
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the killings "a punch to the gut" while NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the violence, unseen in Europe for decades, was "horrific" and "absolutely unacceptable".
Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the European Union all called for those responsible to be brought to book at the international tribunal in The Hague.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Russia's "despicable attacks" against civilians in Irpin and Bucha were "evidence that Putin and his army are committing war crimes in Ukraine".
Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany would draw up new sanctions with allies over the alleged war crimes.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply shocked" by images of mass graves in Bucha and called for an independent investigation.
But Russia's defence ministry on Sunday said "not a single local resident" in Bucha suffered violence, accusing Ukraine of bombarding its southern suburbs and falsifying images of corpses in "another production" for Western media.
Despite Western action targeting oligarchs and businesses -- and calls to go further -- the Kremlin said it was not possible to isolate Russia entirely.
The world is "much larger than Europe", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state television, adding: "Sooner or later we will have to build a dialogue, whether some overseas want it or not."
- 'Tormented Ukraine' -
Europe's worst conflict in decades, sparked by Russia's invasion on February 24, has already left some 20,000 people dead, according to Ukrainian estimates.
Nearly 4.2 million Ukrainians have fled the country, with almost 40,000 pouring into neighbouring countries in the last 24 hours alone, the UN refugee agency said, although Ukraine's interior ministry on Sunday said more than 500,000 Ukrainians have returned.
Nearly 6.48 million were estimated to be displaced inside Ukraine, the International Organization for Migration has assessed.
AFP journalists saw women, children and elderly people boarding a train at the station to flee the eastern city of Kramatorsk in the Donbas region as Moscow refocuses its offensive on southern and eastern Ukraine.
"The rumour is that something terrible is coming," said Svetlana, a volunteer organising the crowd on the station platform.
Pope Francis, on a visit to Malta on Sunday, made a plea for refugees fleeing the "sacrilegious war" in "tormented Ukraine" to be welcomed.
Several Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden, have already accused Russia's Vladimir Putin of being a "war criminal".
Human Rights Watch said Russian troops may have committed possible war crimes against civilians in occupied areas of Chernigiv, Kharkiv and Kyiv, including rape and summary execution.
Zelensky has also alleged Russian soldiers planted mines and other booby traps as they withdraw from northern Ukraine, warning returning residents to be wary of tripwires and other dangers.
- Odessa hit -
The war crimes claims came as the strategic Black Sea port city of Odessa, which has largely been spared in the conflict, was hit by air strikes apparently targeting key infrastructure.
Plumes of thick black smoke billowed over the strategic port city, after a series of blasts shook residents awake at about 6:00 am (0300 GMT).
"We were woken up by the first explosion then we saw a flash in the sky, then another, then another. I lost count," one local man, Mykola, 22, told AFP.
Russia's defence ministry said it had targeted an oil refinery and three fuel storage facilities with "high-precision sea and air-based missiles".
The depots were supplying fuel to Ukrainian troops, it added.
Ukraine said its defences shot down some of the missiles.
The strikes came as top UN humanitarian envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Moscow on Sunday before an expected visit to Kyiv to seek a halt to the fighting.
- Peace talks -
On peace talks, Russia's chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said it was too early for a top-level meeting between Zelensky and Putin on ending the conflict.
He said Kyiv had become "more realistic" in its approach to issues related to the neutral and non-nuclear status of Ukraine but a draft agreement for submission to a summit meeting was not yet ready.
Ukraine has proposed abandoning its aspirations to join NATO and declaring official neutrality, if it obtains security guarantees from Western countries. It would also pledge not to host any foreign military bases.
It has proposed to temporarily put aside the question of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and two breakaway territories in the eastern Donbas region that Russia has recognised as independent.
Medinsky said Russia's position on Crimea and the Donbas "remains unchanged" and that talks would resume by video conference on Monday.
- 'Liberated' -
As Russian forces withdraw from some northern areas, Moscow appears to be focusing on eastern and southern Ukraine, where it already holds swathes of territory.
UK Defence Intelligence said early Sunday that Russian air activity in the last week had been concentrating on southeastern Ukraine, "likely as a result of Russia focusing its military operations in this area".
But it said Russia was struggling to find and destroy air systems, which has "significantly affected their ability to support the advance of their ground forces".
Ukraine on Saturday claimed progress against Russian forces, saying Irpin, Bucha, Gostomel and the whole Kyiv region had been "liberated".
NATO's Stoltenberg, however, cautioned that Russia's claim to be pulling troops away from Kyiv was "not a withdrawal" but Russia repositioning its troops.
- Evacuation bid -
Russia's efforts to consolidate its hold on southern and eastern areas of Ukraine have been hampered by the resistance of Mariupol despite devastating attacks lasting weeks.
At least 5,000 residents have been killed in the besieged southern port city, according to officials, while the estimated 160,000 who remain face shortages of food, water and electricity.
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