Parts of northeastern Ukraine are starting to yield evidence of a brutal Russian occupation, according to investigators who have regained access following Kyiv’s recent successful counteroffensive.
Investigators announced Friday that they had found at least 10 "torture centers" as well as a mass grave containing about 450 bodies near the just recaptured city of Izium.
Officials said the total number of victims in Izium had yet to be determined but that many of the bodies had broken limbs and some were buried with ropes around their necks.
“The world must see what the Russian army left behind … another mass burial of murdered people, children and adults, civilians and military,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video with English translation that his office posted Friday on social media.
“Even entire families are buried there,” he said, adding that even though the exhumation of the remains was still just getting underway, there was growing evidence of Russian abuse.
“The world should know that Russia leaves such traces of atrocities, traces of terror everywhere in the occupied territories,” Zelenskyy added.
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians or committing war crimes, but the United Nations said Friday that it wanted to send its own team to investigate the site near Izium and determine the circumstances of the deaths.
The United States on Friday acknowledged seeing the reports of the alleged atrocities and renewed its pledge to help Ukraine make sure the incidents are documented and that the findings are shared with international investigators.
“Russian leadership has not only approved but participated in atrocities against the civilian population of Ukraine — everything from airstrikes on hospitals to actual on-the-ground war crimes against the men and women and their children,” National Security Council coordinator John Kirby told VOA Friday.
“The brutality that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has visited upon Ukraine, and Ukrainians, has been there almost since the very beginning,” he added.
Putin did not respond directly Friday to the allegations of additional Russian atrocities near Izium, instead warning that Russia’s military would not back down.
"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 during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Separately, senior U.S. intelligence and military officials cautioned that Ukraine and its allies need to take Putin at his word regarding the fighting.
“I don't think we should underestimate either Putin's adherence to his original objective here, which was to control Ukraine … or his risk appetite,” Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director David Cohen told a security conference just outside Washington.
“It’s not over,” added Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.
“If you look at most of the efforts undergone in the military domain by Russia over the last 100 years, they normally start poorly, and they become a learning organization and they adjust,” Whitworth said. “They’ve got a possible adjustment in store, and we’ll have to see what comes next.”
Meanwhile, a Pentagon official said Monday that Ukraine’s military was consolidating its gains in the north, in the Kharkiv oblast, after retaking “significant territory,” while Ukrainian forces to the south were continuing to press ahead with an offensive there.
“Certainly, we’ve seen the Ukrainians have some success,” the Pentagon press secretary, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, told reporters. "But we do anticipate that this will continue to be a very tough fight, and the only thing that could shorten it would be if the Russians decided to do the right thing and withdraw.”
President Joe Biden announced late Thursday a $600 million arms package for Ukraine, the 21st time the Defense Department has pulled weapons and other equipment off the shelves to deliver to Ukraine.
The U.S. has sent about $15.1 billion in security assistance to the Kyiv government since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Meanwhile, a series of apparent targeted attacks against pro-Russian officials in occupied territories continued with a blast in the Russian-held city of Lugansk. The separatist administration's top prosecutor and his deputy were killed, pro-Moscow authorities said.
"Today, Prosecutor General Sergei Gorenko and his deputy, Ekaterina Steglenko, died as a result of a terrorist act," the press service of the leader of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People's Republic, Leonid Pasechnik, said on Telegram. He added that the attack "showed that Kyiv's regime had crossed all possible limits."
Two other pro-Moscow officials were killed overnight in the southern port city of Berdyansk, according to pro-Russia local authorities.
Ukraine has said it will target "collaborators" who work for or with Russian-installed administrations in towns occupied by Russia.
Kyiv says it has taken back more than 7,800 square kilometers (3,000 square miles) of territory occupied by Russia in the east and south of the country since the beginning of September.
VOA's White House Correspondent Anita Powell, State Department Correspondent Nike Ching and Dora Mekouar contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press and Reuters.