Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday it had become harder for his country to negotiate with Russia since Kyiv became aware of the scale of atrocities carried out by Russian troops in Ukraine.
Mr Zelenskiy spoke on national television from the town of Bucha in the Kyiv region, where tied bodies shot at close range, a mass grave and other signs of executions have been found in territory retaken from Russian troops.
Moscow has denied any accusations related to the killing of civilians in Bucha.
“These are war crimes and will be recognised by the world as genocide,” Zelenskiy said, wearing body armour and surrounded by military personnel.
“It’s very difficult to talk when you see what they’ve done here,” he said. “The longer the Russian Federation drags out the negotiating process, the worse it is for them and for this situation and for this war.”
“We know of thousands of people killed and tortured, with severed limbs, raped women and murdered children,” he said.
After Mr Zelenskiy spoke, Ukrainian officials took journalists to the basement of what they said was a summer residence for children and showed them the bodies of five men with their hands tied behind their backs.
The officials said the five people, who all wore civilian clothes, had been killed by occupying Russian soldiers before Ukrainian troops retook control of the town.
“They were shot, shot either in their head or in their chest. They were tortured before they were killed,” said Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior ministry.
“Now we are investigating this and we show (it) to the international press.”
He said Russian soldiers had set up camp inside the building and stayed there for three weeks.
Reuters could not independently verify his account.
Bucha’s deputy mayor said on Sunday that 50 residents had been victims of extra-judicial killings carried out by Russian troops.
In nearby Stoianka, about 15km south of Bucha, Mr Zelenskiy surveyed the damage to a motorway bridge which was almost split in two. One car stood abandoned, bulletholes peppering its bodywork and windscreen. A nearby housing estate was flattened and advertising hoardings were scarred with bulletholes.
Russia denies targeting civilians since invading Ukraine on February 24th in what it calls a “special military operation” aimed at demilitarising and “denazifying” Ukraine. Ukraine says it was invaded without provocation.
The Kremlin on Monday denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians in Bucha.
“This information must be seriously questioned,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “From what we have seen, our experts have identified signs of video falsification and other fakes.”
The destruction and civilian deaths in Bucha look set to galvanise the United States and Europe into additional sanctions against Moscow, with officials raising the prospect of restrictions on Russia's energy exports.
“The world has already seen many war crimes. At different times. On different continents. But it is time to do everything possible to make the war crimes of the Russian military the last manifestation of such evil on earth,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a video address on Sunday, adding that actions would be considered by the UN Security Council at a meeting on Tuesday.
Iryna Venedyktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, said 410 bodies of civilians had been recovered from the Kyiv region.
Images of charred corpses and reports of mass graves have prompted the EU to prepare more sanctions against Russia, with European Council president Charles Michel saying new measures were "on their way" following the Russian retreat from Bucha.
The Ukrainian army said it had retaken more territory from Russian forces, reclaiming a village near Chernihiv, about 150km northeast of the capital, and Pripyat outside the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, about 150km northwest of Kyiv.
But the military warned that Russia would continue to attack critical infrastructure, particularly in the besieged port city of Mariupol, and in Odesa, which was targeted at the weekend.
The mayor of Mykolayiv, Oleksandr Senkevych, said Russian troops launched several rocket attacks on the southern city early on Monday.
US officials and leaders from across the EU condemned the reports from Bucha and other areas near the capital, with Richard Moore, head of the UK intelligence service MI6, saying “we knew Putin’s invasion plans included summary executions by his military and intelligence services”.
China, which has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, offered a muted response on Monday. State media did not mention the alleged killings, and posts on Chinese social media by prominent bloggers questioned the veracity of the reports.
Russia’s ministry of defence denied the accusations, saying they were a “provocation” designed by Ukraine for western media.
Mr Zelenskiy vowed that a “mechanism of justice” would be formed by the foreign affairs ministry, the prosecutor-general’s office and other branches of government to help “bring to concrete justice those who unleashed or in any way participated in crimes against our people”.
Mr Zelenskiy also criticised former western leaders who were slow to react to Mr Putin’s aggression and had offered too many concessions to the Russian president for more than a decade.
“More conclusions are needed. Not only about Russia, but also about the political behaviour that actually allowed this evil to come to our land,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Ukraine’s version of what happened in the town of Bucha was a “fake attack” aimed at undermining Moscow, the TASS news agency reported.
Mr Lavrov said the dead bodies were “staged” and that images of them and what he said was Ukraine’s false version of events had been spread on social media by Western countries and Ukraine.
Russia’s top diplomat also called on Britain, which holds the presidency of the UN Security Council for April, to fulfil its responsibilities in that role after it rejected a Russian request to convene a meeting over Bucha.
The Kremlin said on Monday it categorically denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians in Bucha and said Ukrainian allegations on the matter should be treated with doubt.
“This information must be seriously questioned,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. Mr Peskov said that Russia’s diplomats would press on with their efforts to convene a UN Security Council meeting to discuss what Moscow has called “Ukrainian provocations” in Bucha despite their first effort to arrange such a meeting being blocked.
Taras Schevchenko (43) said Russian soldiers had refused to allow men to leave through a humanitarian corridor, instead shooting at them as they fled across an open field.
Bodies, he said, were scattered on the pavements, with some of those killed having been “squashed by tanks, like animal skin rugs”.
Mr Shevchenko’s mother, Yevdokia (77) said she had witnessed an elderly man who had challenged a Russian soldier being shot dead as his wife stood next to him. “They shot him dead, and ordered the woman to leave,” she said. The accounts could not be independently verified.
Reporters from Agence France-Presse saw at least 20 bodies, all in civilian clothing, strewn across a single street in the town of Bucha on Friday. One had his hands tied behind his back with a white cloth, and his Ukrainian passport left open beside his body.
"All these people were shot," Bucha's mayor, Anatoly Fedoruk, told AFP, adding that a further 280 bodies had been buried in mass graves in the town.
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said: "I am deeply shocked by the images of civilians killed in Bucha, Ukraine. It is essential that an independent investigation leads to effective accountability."
UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, said the killings added to evidence of Russian war crimes, while the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, expressed shock about the "terrible and horrifying" footage from Bucha.
Streets littered with bodies. Bodies buried in makeshift conditions. There is talk of women, children and the elderly among the victims,” Mr Scholz said.
The British ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, said it was clear that rape had been used as a weapon of war by Russian forces. She said: "Women raped in front of their kids, girls in front of their families, as a deliberate act of subjugation. Rape is a war crime."
Germany's vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, condemned the killings of civilians in the town of Bucha as a "terrible war crime [that] cannot go unanswered" and called for a strengthening of sanctions.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, described the killings at Bucha as "a punch to the gut" and joined western allies in vowing to document the atrocities to hold the perpetrators to account.
The head of the European Council, Charles Michel, said he was shocked by “haunting images of atrocities committed by [the] Russian army in liberated region of Kyiv”, adding that “further EU sanctions and support are on their way”.
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said she was "appalled by reports of unspeakable horrors in areas from which Russia is withdrawing". An independent investigation was urgently needed, she said, and "perpetrators of war crimes will be held accountable". – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022.
Additional reporting: Guardian/Reuters