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Horrifying images from Ukraine spark renewed calls for war crime investigations

U.S. and European leaders push for Russia to be held accountable as Ukrainian officials gather evidence of possible war crimes in towns outside the capital, Kyiv.

LONDON — Calls to hold Russia accountable for alleged war crimes in Ukraine have intensified as horrific images emerged over the weekend from the towns on the outskirts of Kyiv after the retreat of Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials and journalists shared photos and videos of what they said showed dozens of bodies in civilian clothing strewn in the streets of the town of Bucha, northwest of capital Kyiv, as well as nearby towns.

“We are still gathering and looking for bodies, but the number has already gone into the hundreds. Dead bodies lie on the streets,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview Sunday.

Mass graves “filled with civilians” were found in the towns of Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin, Sergey Nikiforov, a spokesman for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told the BBC on Sunday. Bodies were found with their hands and legs tied, and with bullet holes at the back of their heads, he said. 

Communal workers carry body bags to a van following Russian shelling of the town of Bucha, Kyiv oblast, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022.
Workers carry bodies to a van Sunday in Bucha, Ukraine.Sergei Supinsky / AFP - Getty Images

Ukrainian officials have also found “half-burned bodies,” he added, “as if somebody tried to hide their crimes, but they did not have enough time to do it properly.”

NBC News was not able to confirm the allegations of war crimes or independently verify the photos or videos.

Satellite images from Colorado-based Maxar Technologies, a U.S. government intelligence contractor, released late Sunday showed what appeared to be a mass grave with a 45-foot long trench by a local church in Bucha, while reporters for the AFP and the BBC have also reported seeing corpses in the streets of the city.

Zelenskyy accused Russian forces of killing civilians “knowingly and with pleasure,” and pleaded with “every mother of every Russian soldier” to see the bodies lying in towns near Kyiv. 

“What did the Ukrainian city of Bucha do to your Russia? How did all this become possible?” he said in a speech posted on Telegram late Sunday.

Ukrainian officials have compared the scenes in Bucha and nearby towns to historic atrocities committed during World War II and in Bosnia in the 1990s.

Image: A dog lays next to the body of a civilian, who according to residents was killed by Russian soldiers, in Bucha
A dog sits next to the body of a civilian in Bucha on Sunday. Reuters

Moscow has categorically denied any accusations, calling photos and videos from Bucha a “provocation” by Ukrainian authorities. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called them “staged,” and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said information about the killings of civilians in Bucha “must be seriously questioned.” Russian officials have consistently denied targeting civilians since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Human Rights Watch also said Sunday that its own investigators had documented “summary executions” and “other grave abuses” in several regions Russia controlled in Ukraine, including around Kyiv.

Ukraine, the United States and its allies have accused Russia of war crimes over the past weeks, but the latest reports have deepened the condemnation and calls for investigations.

President Joe Biden on Monday said Russian President Vladimir Putin “is a war criminal” and called for “a war crime trial,” before adding that he was considering more sanctions against Russia for its attacks on Ukraine.

“The images reaching us from Bucha, a liberated town near Kyiv, are unbearable,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tweet Sunday. “The Russian authorities will have to answer for these crimes.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for an independent investigation Sunday, saying that “perpetrators of war crimes will be held accountable,” while the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said Monday that the emerging reports “raise serious and disturbing questions about possible war crimes.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken described scenes of bodies on the streets of Bucha as a “punch to the gut” on CNN on Sunday, adding that "there needs to be accountability." The State Department had already assessed in a report released last month that Russian forces committed war crimes in Ukraine, and said it was committed to “pursuing accountability.” 

The international calls to investigate war crimes coincides with Ukraine’s own efforts to gather evidence of such in its own territory.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said Sunday in a post on Facebook that in Bucha alone, dozens of investigators were looking at evidence, while others were examining hundreds of bodies found in the Kyiv region. Her office was also looking into Russian actions in other areas of Ukraine.

Zelenskyy said late Sunday he will create “a special mechanism of justice” involving both Ukrainian and international experts, though he did not give further details on how that would differ from the work of Venediktova’s office.

During a visit to Bucha on Monday, he said Ukraine would push for justice to be swift.

"We will pressure publicly as much as we can, we will not make any pauses to find all the criminals," he said.

The graphic images and reports emerging from Bucha may end up pushing prosecutors outside Ukraine to devote resources to prosecute anyone eventually charged with war crimes, according to Andrew Clapham, a professor of international law and the author of "War," who is also advising the Ukrainian government.

“There will be prosecutors around the world who will have the capacity to arrest people coming through their jurisdictions and who will feel clearer in their minds about the morality dimension to this,” he said.

Prosecutions in international courts, however, could still be years away, especially given that the war is still ongoing, according to experts. War crimes carry no statute of limitations.

“People are still being prosecuted for events in the Second World War,” Clapham said. “These are crimes which stick to you forever.”