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Ukraine accuses Russia of digging mass graves for civilian victims

CHARKIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of burying thousands of civilians in mass graves outside Mariupol, a city now largely under Russian control, because a senior Russian military official said Moscow’s territorial goals went far beyond Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Moscow ceased to regard Donbas as part of Ukraine – including Kiev-controlled areas – when President Vladimir Putin in February recognized the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, states created with Moscow’s help in part of the region in 2014.

Major General Rustam Minnekaev, deputy commander of Russia’s Central Military District, said in a remarks at a state media conference on Friday that Moscow was trying to take control of all of southern Ukraine to secure a land corridor to Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow. in 2014 and to the Moldovan region of Transnistria, where, according to him, Russian-speaking people suffer from discrimination.

To achieve these goals, in addition to conquering parts of Donbas that remain under Ukrainian control, Russia would also have to occupy the coastal areas of Mykolaiv and Odessa. Russian forces approached to defeat Mykolaiv in early March, but have since repulsed and controlled part of the region.

Ukraine’s second largest city was under increased Russian shelling after almost two months of heavy fighting. Yaroslav Trofimov of WSJ reports on the desperate conditions in Kharkov, where residents survive with little food and shelter in cellars. Photo: Felipe Dana / Associated Press

However, Moscow occupies most of the Kherson region in southern Ukraine and much of the Zaporozhye region. Russia’s state news agency RIA on Friday gave talks to Russian parliamentary parliament Dmitry Belik and Promo-Moscow Crimean Tatar leader Eyvaz Umerov, who called for the absorption of these occupied territories into Russia’s new Crimean federal district.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the possibility that Russia would expand its military targets in southern Ukraine. It was unclear to what extent General Minnevaev’s remarks – which included false claims that Russia had fought “against the world” in World War II and that the Russian armed forces had no casualties in Ukraine – reflected the Kremlin’s policies.

A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an overview of the graves in Manhush near Mariupol.

Photo: Maxar Technologies / Associated Press

In Mariupol, much of which was razed to the ground by shelling, bombing and street fighting, Ukrainian city officials said mass graves for residents killed by the Russian army had been dug out of town in an area twice the size of the local cemetery.

“The worst war crime of the 21st century was committed in Mariupol,” Mayor Vadym Boychenko said in a statement published by the municipality on social networks. “Putin is exterminating the Ukrainians. He has already killed tens of thousands of civilians in Mariupol. “

Satellite images released by Maxar Technologies on Thursday showed what looked like more than 200 mass graves in Manhush, near Mariupol. There could be 3,000 to 9,000 people in these graves, the municipality said. Russia did not respond immediately to a request for comment. He generally attributes all civilian casualties in Mariupol to Ukrainian forces.

Russia on Thursday announced a victory in the strategic port city, although Ukrainian forces were still blocked inside its large Azovstal steel plant. A spokesman for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that while almost all of Mariupol was under Russian control, the fight for the power plant continued.

The rare recognition of Moscow’s deliberate strategy of leveling Mariupol, which used to be home to about 400,000 people, came from Thursday’s speech by Adam Delimchanov, a Russian Chechen MP who led Chechen Russian National Guard forces in the fighting for the city.

“We can say that a special operation to destroy and clean up Mariupol has now been closed,” Mr Delimchanov said, along with a unit of the Chechen Russian National Guard in front of the burning Mariupol building. The soldiers chanted in the video: “Russia is a force” and “Allah akbar”.

Chechen fighters led by Russian MP Adam Delimchanov near the Azovstal steelworks office building in Mariupol.

Photo: ČINGIS KONDAROV / REUTERS

Smoke rises above the Mariupol steel plant, where Ukrainian soldiers are hiding.

Photo: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO / REUTERS

Mr Peskov said Russian troops had closed the Azovstal steel plant, where an estimated 1,500 Ukrainian soldiers were hiding. Ukrainian troops in Mariupol said they would be ready to withdraw their weapons if their safety was guaranteed by a third party.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that he agreed with the evaluation of the Western secret services, that the war in Ukraine could continue until the end of next year and that Russia could win.

“I think the sad thing is, it’s a real possibility,” Johnson said. “Putin has a huge army, he is in a very difficult position because he has made a catastrophic mistake – the only option he has now is to continue trying to use his appalling, overwhelming approach.”

The British government also said it would reopen its embassy in Kiev next week, joining a number of nations returning to the Ukrainian capital after Russian forces withdrew from Kiev and other northern cities. And Mr Johnson said the government was proposing to send tanks to Poland.

The US does not have diplomatic staff in Ukraine and has not outlined any plans for the return of US diplomats.

In an effort to end the war, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will travel to Moscow on Tuesday to meet with Mr Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and travel to Ukraine and with Mr Zelenský and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Thursday, according to Mr Guterres’s office. .

Mr Putin ordered Russian forces to focus on conquering parts of Donbas that remain under Ukrainian control after his original plan to quickly conquer the capital Kiev and other major cities in eastern and central Ukraine failed due to fierce resistance. Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia’s new strategy is to encircle the best Ukrainian forces in Donbas with a pincer movement, with offensives north of Zaporozhye and south of Izjum.

Russian forces have been making gradual gains so far and have conquered several small villages since the conquest of Kreminna last weekend. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, Russian forces pushed towards Slovyansk, one of the capitals of the Ukrainian-controlled Donbas, on Friday, and occupied the village of Lozove.

In recent days, the Ukrainian military has managed to reduce Russia’s overwhelming aircraft by using anti-aircraft missiles supplied by the West, such as the Stinger and Starstreak, to shoot down several Russian jet fighters, helicopters and drones, according to footage released by Ukrainian troops and verified by military analysts. Ukraine said on Friday it had lost an An-26B airliner that crashed into a power line in the Zaporozhye region, killing at least one crew member.

In the battle for the Donbas, which pits conventional forces against each other, Ukraine is trying to make up for its artillery disadvantage and lack of Soviet standard ammunition – one of the reasons why Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly asked the US and allies to supply NATO standards. heavy weapons.

The US was the first to provide Ukraine with 155mm NATO howitzers. President Biden said on Thursday that Washington’s latest $ 800 million military aid package would include 72 of these towed works in addition to the 18 promised last week.

In an interview published by the newspaper Ouest-France on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that Paris was providing Ukraine with self-propelled 155mm Caesar cannons. The newspaper, referring to military sources, said that Paris was transferring 12 Caesars, who had a range of about 40 kilometers, which is about 25 miles, and that Ukrainian soldiers would start training in France on Saturday.

Ukrainian officials recently warned that Moscow plans to hold a false referendum in the coming weeks on the separation of Russian-controlled parts of Zaporozhye and Kherson from Ukraine and a possible declaration of the so-called Kherson People’s Republic, as it did in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014. begin to forcibly deport local men, as has happened with the mandatory mobilization of men under the age of 65 in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Russia has already replaced most of the mayors in the occupied regions of southern Ukraine with elected allies, with the exception of the mayor of Kherson. Moscow has not publicly commented on the referendum’s plans. “Not a single person will attend the referendum in the Kherson region, which is waiting for liberation,” he said …