The United Nations said Tuesday that all the signs from Bucha pointed toward civilians having been directly targeted and killed in the town outside Kyiv.
The UN Human Rights Office said the images emerging from Bucha were extremely disturbing, and underlined that international law prohibited deliberate attacks on civilians.
Western leaders have united in outrage after dozens of bodies were found on the streets and in mass graves when Russian troops retreated from the devastated town, laying bare the horrors of a 40-day war that has killed thousands.
“What we’re talking about here appears to be the direct killing and targeting of civilians in Bucha,” rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssell told reporters in Geneva.
She cited photographs of people with their hands bound and of partially naked women whose bodies had been burnt.
“This is extremely disturbing, and does really strongly suggest that they were directly targeted as individuals, and here, what we must stress is that under international humanitarian law, the deliberate killing of civilians is a war crime,” she said.
Throssell added: “All the signs are that the victims were directly targeted and directly killed.
“You could argue there was a military context, for example, to a building being hit; it’s hard to see what was the military context of an individual lying in the street with a bullet to the head or having their bodies burned.”
Throssell clarified that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights did not have staff on the ground in Bucha.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky blames Russian troops for the killings, but the Kremlin has denied responsibility. Moscow suggested images of the corpses in Bucha were “fakes.”
In Bucha, resident Olena told AFP she saw Russian soldiers shoot a man in cold blood as units of “brutal” older troops sowed fear in the town near Kyiv.
“Right in front of my eyes, they fired on a man who was going to get food at the supermarket,” said Olena, 43, who did not wish to give her second name.
Located 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the northwest of Kyiv’s city center, the town of Bucha was occupied by Russian forces on February 27 in the opening days of the war and remained under their control for a month.
After the bombardments stopped, Ukrainian forces were able to retake the town on Thursday.
Large numbers of bodies in civilian clothing have since been found in the town.
Throughout March, Olena lived with her children, seven and nine years old, in a cellar with no electricity under a four-story apartment building, along with other residents.
“There was no Ukrainian army in town, only the territorial defense made up mostly of unarmed guards from local businesses. And then they fled” when the Russians arrived, she said. “At the beginning, there were mostly young [Russian] soldiers. Then, two weeks later, there were others, older ones. They were more than 40 years old.
“They were brutal. They mistreated everyone. And that’s when the massacres started,” she said, before interrupting herself, a dark, thoughtful look on her face.
‘Lying in blood’
According to Olena, the older soldiers “were very well equipped and wore black and dark green uniforms” as opposed to standard Russian army fatigues.
“There were some good guys among the Russian soldiers and there were some very rough men, especially officers from the FSB,” the Russian security services, said Olena, who was dressed in a red beanie, a fleece jacket, tracksuit bottoms, and sports shoes.
“I was going up to the soldiers to ask them what I should feed my children with and they brought us rations and food.
“It was they who told us that it was the FSB that had banned us from moving around, that they were very violent special forces. It was Russians saying this about the Russians!” she said.
Only women were allowed to leave to get water or food. The men were not permitted to go out into the streets and had to stay where they were.
“Our neighbors went to put their garbage out around 5 p.m. They were two men and a woman. One of the men had served in the army. They didn’t come back.
“They were found by the women in our building when they went to get wood in the courtyard of a house. The corpses were lying in blood on the ground with bullet marks,” Olena said.
“When the FSB agents arrived, they asked, ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ I told them I have lived here for 43 years and had a peaceful life, so where would I go? At that point, they started calling us traitors, because we didn’t leave.”
On Saturday, AFP saw the bodies of at least 22 people in civilian clothes on a single street. One of them was on the pavement near a bicycle, others had bags of provisions near them. The body of one man had his hands tied behind his back.
On Monday, the bodies of five men, their hands also tied, were found in a children’s sanatorium basement in Bucha, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said.
According to the mayor of Bucha, 280 people were buried in mass graves dug by Ukrainians, as the number of dead mounted.
In the center of the town on Monday, one road was littered with the battered husks of around 20 vehicles, including troop transporters, tank trucks, and Russian light armored vehicles, some of them already beginning to rust.
The column was probably targeted by Ukrainian bombardments shortly after it rolled into town at the end of February.
In gardens, patches where the earth had been churned up could be seen surrounded by shell casings, an indication the site was used as an artillery position to pound the Kyiv region.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that Russian “experts at the ministry of defense have identified signs of video fakes and various fakes” in the videos shared by Ukrainian authorities.
EU chief in Kyiv ‘this week’
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will travel this week to Kyiv, accompanied by EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell, her spokesman said on Tuesday.
The pair, two of the European Union’s most senior figures, “will travel to Kyiv this week to meet with President [Volodymyr] Zelensky ahead of the #StandUpForUkraine event in Warsaw on Saturday,” commission spokesman Eric Mamer said in a tweet.
Zelensky told reporters in Ukraine that “I expect her visit in the coming days, we don’t yet know the timing.”
He said he and von der Leyen had agreed on Sunday that a joint Ukraine-EU investigation body would probe possible war crimes that Kyiv blames on Moscow’s troops.
Von der Leyen on Monday said the EU was “ready to reinforce this effort” by sending investigation teams to Ukraine.
The European Union is discussing a fifth round of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, with member states expected to sign off on it this week or next.
The EU chief’s trip to Ukraine was revealed ahead of its official announcement by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa on Monday.
Her visit is to come after one made last Friday by the speaker of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola — the first trip to Ukraine by the head of an EU institution since the war began.
Jansa and his Polish and Czech counterparts on March 15 visited Kyiv in the first trip by European Union leaders.
The “Stand Up For Ukraine” event in Warsaw referred to in the tweet by von der Leyen’s spokesman is the culmination of a global donation drive jointly organized by the EU and Canada to raise money for Ukraine refugees.