Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of committing genocide in his country, as Western leaders condemned images of dead Ukrainian civilians in a town abandoned by Russian forces outside the capital, Kyiv.
“Indeed, this is genocide. The elimination of the whole nation and the people,” Zelenskyy told the CBS “Face the Nation” news programme on Sunday, speaking through a translator.
“We are the citizens of Ukraine and we don’t want to be subdued to the policy of Russian Federation. This is the reason we are being destroyed and exterminated.”
Zelenskyy’s remarks came a day after Ukrainian forces moved into the town of Bucha near Kyiv and found what officials and witnesses said were the bodies of civilians killed by Russian forces.
Ukraine accused Russian forces of carrying out a “massacre” in Bucha. Russia’s defence ministry denied the Ukrainian allegations, saying footage and photographs showing bodies in Bucha were “yet another provocation” by the Ukrainian government.
The ministry said that “not a single civilian has faced any violent action by the Russian military“ in Bucha.
The images from Bucha came after Ukraine said on Saturday its forces had reclaimed control of the whole Kyiv region and liberated towns from Russian troops.
The United Nations said that the discovery of mass graves in Bucha raised serious questions about possible war crimes, and stressed the importance of preserving evidence.
“What is known to date clearly raises serious and disturbing questions about possible war crimes and grave violations of international humanitarian law,” the UN rights office said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Sunday that it had found “several cases of Russian military forces committing laws-of-war violations” in Russian-controlled regions such as Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv.
The UN has said more than 1,300 people, including 64 children, have been killed and 2,017 injured in the country. It believes that the actual figures are “considerably higher”.
Call for accountability
On whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would be held accountable, Zelenskyy said others also shared the blame.
“I think all the military commanders, everyone who gave instructions and orders should be punished adequately,” he said.
Asked what would constitute adequate punishment, he said: “When we find people with hands tied behind their back and decapitated … I don’t know what law or what imprisonment term would be adequate for this.”
Videos of possible Russian POW abuse by #Ukraine forces are credible enough to require an effective investigation. If confirmed, the abuse would amount to war crime.
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) April 3, 2022
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, who visited Bucha, said that the Ukrainian forces were going from house to house in the town after taking it over.
“They are looking for booby traps the Russian forces might have left behind,” he said, reporting from Kyiv.
“The Ukrainians are also looking for more casualties that may be trapped inside buildings,” Khan added.
He also said that the number of people killed in the town, which local authorities reported as 300, is expected to increase.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the images of dead Ukrainian civilians found in Bucha were a “punch in the gut” and those responsible must be held accountable.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the killings in Bucha a “brutality” unseen in Europe for decades.
Asked whether Russian forces would need to withdraw to positions before the February 24 invasion, Zelenskyy said: “It should be 100 percent withdrawal of troops to the borders that existed prior to the 24th of February, at least.
“This would make us at least start discussing other questions about the deoccupation,” he added.
Meanwhile, the head of Italy’s Democratic Party called for a full oil and gas embargo.
“How many #Bucha before we move to a full oil and gas Russia embargo,” Enrico Letta wrote on Twitter Sunday. “Time is over.”
“Putin and his supporters will feel the consequences,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, adding that Western allies would agree further sanctions in the coming days.
Germany’s defence minister Christine Lambrecht said the European Union must discuss banning the import of Russian gas – a departure from Berlin’s prior resistance to the idea of an embargo on Russian energy imports.