The European Union has called for a war crimes tribunal as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said new evidence of torture has been found as more bodies are exhumed from a mass burial site in a town re-taken from Russian forces.
Jan Lipvasky, foreign minister of the Czech Republic which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said on Saturday that Russia’s attacks “against the civilian population are unthinkable and abhorrent” in the 21st century.
“We must not overlook it. We stand for the punishment of all war criminals,” he wrote in a message on Twitter. “I call for the speedy establishment of a special international tribunal that will prosecute the crime of aggression.”
The appeal follows the discovery by Ukrainian authorities of about 450 graves outside the formerly Russian-occupied city of Izyum, with some of the exhumed bodies showing signs of torture.
Zelenskyy, in his daily evening address, said “new evidence of torture was obtained” from the bodies buried there.
“More than 10 torture chambers have already been found in various cities and towns liberated in Kharkiv region,” he added, describing the discovery of electrical implements for torture.
“That’s what the Nazis did. This is what Ruscists do. And they will be held accountable in the same way – both on the battlefield and in courtrooms,” he said, using the term “Ruscists” for “Russian fascists”.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Kharkiv, said the situation in Izyum looks “gruesome on many levels”.
“Izyum is now a desolate city, completely destroyed. There’s barely a building that hasn’t been at least partially damaged, and I’m talking about civilian targets here – apartment blocks, schools, pharmacies, the church – a very desolate picture,” Abdel-Hamid said.
“It’s a place where you see the real toll of this war. It’s a city that has been besieged, that has been bitterly fought between the two sides. It’s now firmly under Ukrainian control. You see the soldiers roaming the streets, but there’s barely any sign of life.”
‘Probably 1,000 tortured and killed’
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the mass graves likely provided more evidence that Russia is committing war crimes in its pro-Western neighbouring country. French President Emmanuel Macron described what had happened in Izyum as atrocities.
The Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, said there were “probably more than 1,000 Ukrainian citizens tortured and killed in the liberated territories of the Kharkiv region”.
The United Nations in Geneva has said it hopes to send a team to determine the circumstances of the deaths.
The macabre discoveries came a little more than five months after the Russian army, driven out of Bucha near the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, left behind hundreds of corpses of civilians, many of whom had signs of torture and summary executions.
On Thursday, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said she wanted Russian President Vladimir Putin to face the International Criminal Court over war crimes in Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden meanwhile warned his Russian counterpart against using chemical or tactical nuclear weapons in the wake of serious losses in his war in Ukraine.
“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t,” Biden said, in an excerpt from an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes aired on Friday evening.
“You would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said.
The US response would be “consequential,” he said, but declined to give detail. Russia “would become more of a pariah in the world than they ever have been,” he added. “Depending on the extent of what they do will determine what response would occur.”
Russian government officials have dismissed Western suggestions that Moscow would use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but it remains a worry for some in the West.
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Washington, DC, said the “director of the CIA in April warned Congress that there’s a possibility that President Putin could deploy nuclear devices”.
“It’s also important to note that President Putin in 2020 signed a Russian military doctrine, which states clearly that Russia will use nuclear devices if other countries utilise nuclear devices against them, but then – and this is the key point – it could also respond with nuclear weapons to the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened,” Hanna said. “Many military experts do not see a possibility of Putin using a nuclear weapon. However, many say that this does not rule out the fact that he may threaten the use, in other words, to escalate, to de-escalate, to get out the parties to the negotiating table.”
‘Pushing them back’
On the ground, Ukrainian forces have recaptured thousands of square kilometres in recent weeks, thanks to a counteroffensive in the northeast, and now threaten enemy positions in the south, as the fighting and bombings continue.
The Russians “are angry because our army is pushing them back in its counteroffensive”, said Svitlana Shpuk, a 42-year-old worker in Kryvyi Rih, a southern town, and Zelenskyy’s hometown, which was flooded after a dam was destroyed by Russian missiles.
Synegubov said an 11-year-old girl had been killed by missile fire in the region.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine which has been partially controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, said on social media that a thermal power plant was “shelled by Russian invaders” on Saturday morning in Mykolaivka.
Ukrainian firefighters were battling the blaze, he said, adding that the Russian shelling had led to interruptions to drinking water supply.
“The occupiers are deliberately targeting infrastructure in the area to try to inflict as much damage as possible, primarily on the civilian population,” he charged.
He had earlier reported that two civilians had been killed and 11 wounded in the past 24 hours by Russian fire.