Russian forces are “hiding their military crimes” by taking the bodies of civilians from a key Ukrainian city and burying them near a cemetery on the outskirts of town, a local mayor said Friday.
As many as 9,000 war dead could be buried in mass graves outside the port city of Mariupol, a battleground decried as “the center of hell” amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine’s east.
Satellite imagery showed long rows of graves stretching away from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush, outside heavily battered Mariupol.
Ukrainian officials said the pictures showed more than 200 mass graves, and that the graves could hold as many as 9,000 dead.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused Russian forces of covering up the carnage.
“The bodies started disappearing from the streets of the city,” Boychenko said during an online briefing. “They are taking the bodies of the dead residents of Mariupol in trucks and throwing them into those trenches. They are hiding their military crimes.”
Boychenko said an estimated 22,000 civilians have been killed in Mariupol. He said Russia is guilty of genocide.
“The biggest war crime of the 21st century was committed in Mariupol,” Boychenko said in a statement. “This is the new Babyn Yar,” a reference to a memorial site outside Kyiv that was the location of a Nazi massacre against more than 30,000 Ukrainian Jews.
A victory in Mariupol would be widely seen as a feather in Putin’s cap because Russian control would establish a key lifeline to resupply troops seeking to take over Ukraine’s eastern territory.
Soldiers fighting back in a Mariupol steel plant appear to be the only force standing in the way of a Russian victory there.
The weary warriors have pleaded with the US and Western powers for help, but President Biden and American allies have refused to engage US and NATO forces directly in Ukraine to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.
What they have done is increase the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine – but that hasn’t done much to stop the assault.
“We are watching what’s happening in Mariupol from the Balkans. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see what is happening,” Sen. Chis Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters during a call from Pristina, Kosovo.
“It is also exhilarating to watch the Ukrainians mount what is a heroic defense and I think we’re glad to see a new round of assistance announced at a critical — both logistical and moral — moment in this fight.”
The assault on Mariupol represents one of the strongest examples of war crimes committed by Russian forces, according to American diplomats.
“We’ve seen the horrifying images and heard the credible reports of atrocities from a growing number of cities across Ukraine – including Mariupol,” a State Department spokesperson told The Hill.
“These images and reports suggest these atrocities are not the act of rogue units; rather, they are part of a deeply disturbing pattern of reports of abuse across all areas where Russia’s forces are engaged.”
Human rights watchers agreed.
“Many civilians, among them women, children and older persons, reportedly still remain trapped in areas of Mariupol besieged by the Russian forces,” said a statement from Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.
“For many weeks, they have been surviving under dire conditions and with scant supplies,” Mijatović said. “They should immediately be provided with humanitarian corridors to enable them to evacuate to safety.”
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Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that the war in Ukraine could last until the end of next year. His nation is set to reopen its embassy in Kyiv in a show of support for Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion.
But the United Nations hopes for a quicker resolution. UN Secretary-General António Guterres plans to meet with Putin next week to make an urgent, face-to-face plea for peace in Ukraine, the world body said Friday.
The war continues to take its toll on everyday people. A 79-year-old man in Kharkiv stepped out of his home to buy bread when he was killed by a fragment from a shell that landed in front of his apartment.
Victor Gubarev, was one of at least three deaths on Monday in Kharkiv, which has been the site of near-daily bombardment since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24.
With News Wire Services