BUCHA, Ukraine (AFP) — World leaders on Sunday accused Russian troops of war crimes, after the discovery of mass graves and allegedly executed civilians near Kyiv, prompting vows of action at the International Criminal Court.
Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and NATO all voiced horror at Ukrainian reports of bodies of civilians found in Bucha, with some appearing to have been bound by their hands and feet before being shot.
City mayor Anatoly Fedoruk told AFP that 280 bodies had been 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.
AFP reporters also saw at least 20 bodies, all in civilian clothing, strewn across a single street in the town of Bucha on Friday. The hands of one were tied behind his back with a white cloth, and his Ukrainian passport left open beside his body.
Russia’s defense ministry said its forces did not kill civilians in Bucha.
“During the time this settlement was under the control of Russian armed forces, not a single local resident suffered from any violent actions,” the ministry said in a statement, claiming Russia’s military delivered 452 tons of humanitarian aid to civilians there.
The ministry said all residents “had the opportunity to freely leave the settlement in the northern direction,” while the southern suburbs of the city “were fired at around the clock by Ukrainian troops.”
Photo and video of corpses strewn across the streets of Bucha were “another production of the Kyiv regime for the Western media,” it added.
The ministry said that all Russian units withdrew from Bucha on March 30, a day after Russia’s military announced it would be significantly reducing activity in northern Ukraine.
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.”
UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply shocked” by images of mass graves in Bucha and called for an independent investigation.
“I am deeply shocked by the images of civilians killed in Bucha, Ukraine. It is essential that an independent investigation leads to effective accountability,” Guterres said.
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.
Ukraine’s foreign minister called for G7 nations to impose immediate “devastating” sanctions against Russia as a result.
But despite Western action targeting oligarchs and businesses — and calls to go further — the Kremlin said it was not possible to isolate Russia entirely.
“There can be no complete vacuum or isolation of Russia. It is technologically impossible in the modern world,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian state television.
The world is “much larger than Europe,” he said, adding: “Sooner or later, we will have to build a dialogue, whether some overseas want it or not.”
Stoltenberg said the killings of civilians in Bucha were “horrific and absolutely unacceptable.”
Stoltenberg also said he was not “too optimistic” about Russia’s claim to be pulling troops away from Kyiv.
“What we see is not a withdrawal, but we see that Russia is repositioning its troops,” he told CNN, warning of the potential of increased attacks.
Blinken echoed that warning in an interview on MSNBC Sunday, saying that Moscow still has “the ability to wreak massive death and destruction, including in places like Kyiv, with air power and missiles.”
But he also noted that the shift appears to be “evidence that Russia’s original plans to take over the whole country, including Kyiv, have been dealt a devastating setback.”
“Russia had three goals going into this: To subjugate Ukraine to its will, to deny its sovereignty and its independence, to assert Russian power, and to divide the West, divide the alliance. And on all three fronts, it’s failed,” Blinken said.
He said it was urgent that the West and Kyiv keep the pressure on Russia.
“We’re doing everything that we can to support Ukrainians… All of that is going to strengthen Ukraine’s hand at the negotiating table,” he told CNN.
Ukraine has offered to accept becoming neutral if it receives adequate security guarantees from Western nations, abandoning aspirations to join NATO.
Blinken said that if Ukraine negotiates an agreement “that meets their needs… we will support it.”
“When it comes to the future, we and allies and partners are going to want to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure that this can’t happen again,” he told CNN.
Ukraine must also have “the means to defend itself…. So we will look at anything that we can do to back up that kind of outcome.”
Blinken is due to travel to Brussels from April 5-7 to attend a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, with a spokesman saying he would use the opportunity to “promote a swift end to his senseless and destructive war of choice against Ukraine.”
“We must shed light on these crimes committed by the Russian army,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement. The perpetrators must be held accountable and international organizations granted access to the region to “document these atrocities,” he added.
The German leader condemned the “terrible and horrible images” in Bucha. “Streets strewn with bodies. Bodies buried summarily. We’re talking about women, children, and elderly among the victims,” he added.
French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the “unbearable” images of murdered civilians in the Ukrainian town of Bucha and said Russian authorities “must answer for these crimes.”
“On the streets, hundreds of civilians cowardly murdered,” Macron wrote on Twitter, in reference to the town outside Kyiv from which Russian forces recently withdrew.
“The images of the crimes committed in Bucha and other areas liberated by the Ukrainian army are astonishing,” said Italy Prime Minister Mario Draghi in a statement.
“The cruelty of the massacres of unarmed civilians is appalling and unbearable. The Russian authorities must immediately cease hostilities, stop the violence against civilians, and be held accountable for what has happened,” he added.