Ukrainian authorities were expected to begin recovering bodies Friday from a mass burial site in a forest recaptured from Russian forces, a delicate task that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said would help show the world "what the Russian occupation has led to.”
The site, containing hundreds of graves, was discovered close to Izium after a rapid counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces retook the northeastern city and much of the Kharkiv region, breaking what had largely become a stalemate in the nearly seven-month war.
To bolster the offensive, the Biden administration announced another $600 million package of military aid Thursday for Ukraine, including more of the weaponry that has helped its troops seize the momentum.
Associated Press journalists who visited the burial site Thursday saw graves amid the pine trees, marked with simple wooden crosses. Most were numbered — and the count went into the 400s.
It was not clear who was buried in many of the plots or how all of them died, though witnesses and a Ukrainian investigator said some were shot and others were killed by artillery fire, mines or airstrikes.
There was at least one mass grave, with a marker saying it contained the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.
In his nightly televised address on Thursday, Zelenskyy said “more information — clear, verifiable information” about the burial site was expected Friday.
“The necessary procedural actions have already begun there,” he said. "We want the world to know what is really happening and what the Russian occupation has led to.”
Zelenskyy invoked the names of other Ukrainian cities where authorities said retreating Russian troops left behind mass graves of civilians.
“Bucha, Mariupol, now, unfortunately, Izium," he said. “Russia leaves death everywhere. And it must be held accountable for it."
The marking of individual graves with wooden crosses differed from some other burial sites discovered earlier in the war and seen by AP reporters — including some around Kyiv that are being investigated as sites of possible war crimes. Bodies found outside the capital in the town of Bucha and elsewhere after Russian forces withdrew had been dumped together and buried without markers.
Izium resident Sergei Gorodko said that among the hundreds buried in individual graves were dozens of adults and children killed in a Russian airstrike on an apartment building.
He said he pulled some of them out of the rubble “with my own hands.”
Sergei Bolvinov, a senior investigator for Ukrainian police, told British TV broadcaster Sky News that some of the people buried were shot, while others died from artillery fire, mines or airstrikes.
The mass grave of Ukrainian soldiers could contain more than the 17 bodies mentioned on its marker, said Oleg Kotenko, an official with the Ukrainian ministry tasked with reintegrating occupied territories.
“We haven’t counted them yet, but I think there are more than 25 or even 30,” he said, basing his estimate on video footage of the site that Russian soldiers posted on social media.