UN chief tours destroyed Ukrainian towns ahead of Zelenskyy talks

Antonio Guterres’s visit to Ukraine comes after holding talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Antonio Guterres speaks to reporters in a street
Guterres's visit to Ukraine saw him travel to Irpin and Bucha, where alleged Russian atrocities included the killing of hundreds of civilians [Sergei Supinsky/AFP]

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, has called for accountability after touring devastated areas near Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, where Russia has been accused of committing war crimes.

The visit on Thursday, Guterres’s first to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in late February, comes two days after he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where he stressed the need for so-called “humanitarian corridors”, particularly out of the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol.

The UN chief, who is due to hold talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later on Thursday, kicked off his Ukraine visit by heading to several towns on the outskirts of Kyiv where Moscow’s forces are alleged to have killed civilians and carried out other atrocities before retreating to refocus their offensive on the eastern Donbas region.

“When I see those destroyed buildings, I imagine my family in one of those houses now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running in panic,” he told reporters in Borodyanka, northwest of the Ukrainian capital, from beside the wreckage of apartment blocks.

“The war is an absurdity in the 21st century – the war is evil and when you see these situations, our heart of course stays with the victims, our condolences to their families. But our emotions – there is no way a war can be acceptable in the 21st century.”

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‘The worst of crimes is war itself’

Guterres’s visit also saw him travel to Irpin and Bucha, where alleged Russian atrocities included the killing of hundreds of civilians.

Multiple probes, including by Ukrainian authorities and the International Criminal Court (ICC), have been launched to investigate the potential war crimes in Ukraine.

“Here, you feel how important it is for a thorough investigation and accountability,” Guterres said in Bucha.

“I fully support the International Criminal Court and appeal to the Russian Federation to accept to cooperate with the ICC. But when we talk of war crimes we cannot forget that the worst of crimes is war itself,” added the UN chief, whose decision to kick off the first leg of his trip at the Kremlin caused upset in Ukraine.

Russia denies targeting civilians and civilian buildings, in what it calls a “special military” operation to “demilitarise and denazify” Ukraine.

Reporting from Irpin, Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid said Guterres was seemingly keen to “speak to people and get an overall picture” of the conflict prior to his meeting with Zelenskyy.

“The secretary-general is seeing up and close for himself what the Ukrainians have been talking about and that is something Zelenskyy wanted him to see before he [Guterres] headed to Moscow,” she said.

“He [Zelenskyy] thought it was a bit ambiguous to go and visit the aggressor first and then come to the victims [after].”

Now in its ninth week, the war in Ukraine has reduced cities to rubble, killed thousands of people – if not more – and displaced millions, including more than five million who have sought shelter abroad.

Negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian delegates have stalled and hopes for a ceasefire faded in the face of heavy fighting in Ukraine’s east and southern regions.

“It is quite clear that he [Guterres] is concentrating on the humanitarian efforts that the UN, in coordination with the International Red Cross, can make rather than trying to bring about some sort of truce or ceasefire, that is not on the table at the moment,” Abdel-Hamid said.

Russian forces pushing ‘to make territorial gains’

Reporting from near Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford said “all indications suggest there is a concerted effort by Russian forces to push further forward into Ukraine and make more territorial gains”.

He said there were unverifiable reports of Russian infantry forces having tried to “storm” the nearby city of Popasna, in the neighbouring Luhansk region, overnight.

“And there has been a lot of shelling on the city in the last half-an-hour or so,” Stratford added.

He said there were various other “areas and towns” in the Donbas that had endured heavy shelling overnight and into the morning.

“We understand that the Ukrainians, so far, are holding them back but this push in this area… is part of a campaign by the Russian army to try and surround the large urban areas of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

“We visited both of those cities in the last couple of days – the streets were virtually deserted and there were non-stop air sirens.”

Stratford also said Russia’s tactics may change as the weather in Ukraine warms with the onset of spring.

“The fact that now that the weather has changed – the sun is out and the fields in this region are drying up – a lot of analysts are questioning whether we could see more movement of Russian troops across fields and large areas now that the ground is firmer,” he said.

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Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies