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WRAPUP 6-Bodies found bound in mass burial site after Russians leave Ukraine city

·5 min read

* Some bodies have rope around necks, hands tied

* Zelenskiy blames Russia, says it must be held responsible

* Moscow has denied its troops carried out atrocities

* Blood in police cells abandoned by Russians

* Kyiv's advance encouraging but war not near end -NATO head

By Gleb Garanich

IZIUM, Ukraine, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Several bodies with rope around their necks and hands tied were among those visible at a mass burial site being exhumed by Ukrainian police and forensic experts on Friday in territory recaptured days ago from Russians in northeastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials said they had found 440 bodies in woodlands near the city of Izium. They said most of the dead were civilians, and that the site proved war crimes had been committed by Russian invaders who occupied the area for months.

Men in white overalls were digging out bodies at the site in a forest where around 200 makeshift wooden crosses were scattered among trees. Some 20 white body bags could be seen.

"Russia is leaving death behind it everywhere and must be held responsible," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address overnight.

The site in Izium, a former Russian front-line stronghold, would be the biggest mass burial found in Europe since the aftermath of the 1990s Balkan wars. Ukrainian forces retook Izium after thousands of Russian troops fled the area, abandoning weapons and ammunition.

Ukrainian police chief Ihor Klymenko told a news conference all of the bodies recovered so far at the site appeared to be of civilians, although there was information that some soldiers might have been buried there too.

"For months a rampant terror, violence, torture and mass murders were in the occupied territories," Zelenskiy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted in English, above photos showing a muddy pit taped off with red-and-white crime-scene tape.

"Anyone else wants to 'freeze the war' instead of sending tanks? We have no right to leave people alone with the Evil."

Russia denies that its occupation forces have committed atrocities. The head of the pro-Russian administration which abandoned the area last week, Vitaly Ganchev, was quoted by Russia's TASS state news agency as accusing Ukrainian forces of being responsible for killings and trying to blame Moscow.

"It was obvious to us that Ukraine would try to repeat the Bucha scenario. Now we have that in Izium," he said, comparing the situation to a city north of the capital Kyiv where hundreds of bodies were found after Russian forces fled in March. Moscow has said those killings were staged by Ukraine, an accusation rejected by Kyiv and international investigators.

BLOOD ON THE FLOOR

In Kupiansk, a northeastern railway junction city whose partial capture by Kyiv's forces on Saturday cut Russia's supply lines and led to the swift collapse at the front, small units of Ukrainian troops were securing a nearly deserted ghost town.

A formerly Russian-occupied police station had been hastily abandoned. Russian flags and a portrait of President Vladimir Putin lay on the floor amid broken glass. Records had been torched. Behind the steel doors of the station's jail cells there was blood on the floor and stains on the mattresses.

Three piglets on the loose from an abandoned sty were foraging in the city street. Serhiy, a middle-aged man in a thin jacket, was hungry for news.

"There’s no electricity, no phones. If there were electricity, at least we could have watched TV. If there were phones, we could have called our relatives," he said.

After a week of rapid gains in the northeast, Ukrainian officials have sought to dampen expectations that they could continue to advance at that pace. They say Russian troops that fled the Kharkiv region are now digging in and planning to defend territory in neighbouring Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

"It is of course extremely encouraging to see that Ukrainian armed forces have been able to take back territory and also strike behind Russian lines," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told BBC radio.

"At the same time, we need to understand that this is not the beginning of the end of the war. We need to be prepared for the long haul."

Putin has yet to comment publicly on the battlefield setback suffered by his forces this month. Ukrainian officials say 9,000 sq km (3,400 sq miles) have been retaken, about the size of the island of Cyprus.

Ukraine has also launched a major offensive to recapture territory in the south, where it aims to trap thousands of Russian troops cut off from supplies on the west bank of the Dnipro river, and retake Kherson, the only large Ukrainian city Russia has captured intact since the start of the war.

Russia's state-run RIA news agency released video showing smoke billowing from Kherson's Russian-occupied administration building after apparent Ukrainian rocket attacks.

Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy head of the region, told Russian state TV that one wing of the building had been practically destroyed, and there were dead and wounded though it was too soon to say how many. Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment.

In the east, the chief prosecutor of the pro-Russian separatist administration in Luhansk was killed by an explosion in his office, along with his deputy, according to Russian news agencies. Pro-Russian authorities said a husband and wife working to arrange a referendum on joining the southern city of Berdiansk to Russia had also been killed overnight.

Russia also reported strikes across the border in its Belgorod region.

The war and Western sanctions on Russia have caused a surge in energy prices especially in Europe, which relies on Russian oil and gas. Germany announced on Friday a regulator was seizing the German arm of Russian oil company Rosneft, including a giant refinery supplying most fuel for the capital Berlin.

The Schwedt refinery depends on oil pumped from Russia through the "Friendship" pipeline to formerly Communist eastern Europe. German officials have said they expect the country will no longer receive Russian oil.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux Writing by Peter Graff Editing by Mark Heinrich)