A mass burial site containing around 440 graves has been discovered in the Ukrainian town of Izyum after it was liberated from Russian control, a senior police officer has told Sky News.

Ukraine’s president confirmed that a “mass burial site” had been found, but said “clear and verified information” would be released on Friday.

“We want the world to know what is really happening and what the Russian occupation has led to,” Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a nightly video address to the nation.

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An image released by his chief of staff showed a number of wooden crosses protruding from mounds in the earth, surrounded by trees.

“A collective burial was discovered in Izyum, in the Kharkiv region,” wrote Andriy Yermak.

“The necessary procedures have already started. All bodies will be exhumed and sent for forensic examination… Russia is a murderous country. A state sponsor of terrorism.

Earlier, Sky News aired an interview with Serhii Bolvinov, the Kharkiv region’s chief police investigator, who revealed the discovery of the mass burial site.

He said officers were also aware of a number of other sites elsewhere in the Kharkiv region.

Mass burial site in Izyum, Ukraine. Photo: Head of the Cabinet of the President of Ukraine

Mr. Bolvinov and his team, along with prosecutors and other specialists, have the vital task of investigating all alleged Russian war crimes in villages, towns and cities that were taken over by Ukrainian troops during a lightning offensive this month.

Speaking of the Izyum site, the chief investigator said: “I can say that there is one of the largest burials in a liberated city, which contains more than 440 graves. Some 440 bodies were buried in the same place.”

When asked if he could say how the victims died, he said: “We know some were killed [shot dead], some died from artillery fire, so-called mine explosion trauma. Some died because of the airstrikes. We also have information that many bodies have not yet been identified. Thus, the reasons for death will be established during the investigations.”

Investigators collect evidence in Izyum.  Photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense
Investigators collect evidence in Izyum. Photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Defense

Separately, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense wrote in a post on social networks: “Mass graves are discovered in Izyum after the liberation of the Russians [Russian fascists is the term Ukraine often uses to describe the Russian invaders].

“The largest current burial sites [sic] has 440 unmarked graves.”

In addition, the Kharkiv region’s national police chief said investigators would inspect a “burial site” in a city that had been previously occupied on Friday.

Volodymyr Timoshko did not identify the location, but said: “According to our estimates, there are more than 440 bodies.”

Izyum is in territory recently recovered by Ukraine
Izyum is in territory recently recovered by Ukraine

President Zelensky compared the suffering in Izyum to the atrocities committed by Russian forces in the town of Bucha, just outside Kyiv, and the southern city of Mariupol.

He had ventured into the war-torn city on Wednesday despite it being close to the Russian front line. Ukrainian soldiers only retook the area a few days earlier.

“Russia leaves death everywhere,” Mr Zelenskyy said. “He must be held accountable for this. The world must hold Russia accountable for this war.”

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Sky News has yet to visit the makeshift burial site in Izyum, but reporters were asked to visit the area on Friday.

Mr Bolvinov was speaking from an undisclosed location in the city of Kharkiv after the police station where he and his officers worked was hit by Russian missile fire earlier in the week.

Still at work despite the disruption, he described how the discovery of the mass burial site affected him.

“For me, it was particularly shocking and horrifying and it’s a crime against humanity. It shouldn’t be like this in a civilized world in 2022. It’s such a horrible and unpleasant story from every angle. I am convinced that evil will certainly be punished.”

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The task facing investigators in Kharkiv is potentially even more difficult than in previously liberated areas such as parts of the Kyiv region and further north, where alleged cases of torture and murder have been documented during the Russian occupation.

Russian forces controlled only parts of the Kyiv region and further north for about a month. In contrast, parts of Kharkiv have been under Russian control for more than five months.

This means that many victims have been dead for much longer, making it more difficult for forensic examination of bodies to determine the cause of death.

Izyum Outskirts
Outskirts of the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine. File Picture

In addition to identifying victims and the cause of death, police collect evidence such as DNA to help build prosecution cases against perpetrators.

Mr Bolvinov said he was confident that the work done by his team and others would result in Russia and even President Vladimir Putin facing international criminal charges.

“I really believe it,” said the lead investigator.

“I believe in the truth. I believe that our daily painstaking work will have results – bringing those responsible for this war to criminal responsibility.”

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