Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Sunday accused Russian soldiers of committing war crimes and killing civilians in Kherson, parts of which were retaken by Ukraine’s army last week after Russia withdrew.
“Investigators have already documented more than 400 Russian war crimes. Bodies of dead civilians and military have been found,” Zelenskiy said in his late-night video.
“The Russian army left behind the same savagery that it did in other regions of the country it entered,” he said.
Reuters could not immediately verify his allegations. Russia denies that its troops intentionally target civilians.
Mass graves have been found in various locations across Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, including civilian bodies showing evidence of torture discovered in the Kharkiv region and Bucha near Kiev. Ukraine has accused Russian troops of committing the crimes.
A United Nations commission in October said war crimes were being committed in Ukraine and that Russian forces were responsible for the “vast majority” of human rights violations in the first weeks of the war.
Ukrainian troops arrived in the center of the southern Kherson region on Friday after Russia abandoned the only regional capital it had captured since Moscow launched its invasion in February.
The retreat was the third major Russian retreat of the war and the first involving the surrender of such a large occupied city in the face of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive that retook parts of the east and south.
Utility companies in the Kherson region were working to restore critical infrastructure damaged and mined by fleeing Russian forces, with most homes in the southern Ukrainian city still without electricity and water, regional officials said.
On Sunday, artillery exchanges that echoed over the city failed to discourage crowds of jubilant, flag-waving residents huddled against the cold from gathering in Kherson’s main square. The crowd was trying to pick up cell phone signals from Starlink ground stations carried in Ukrainian military vehicles.
“We are happy now, but we are all afraid of shelling from the left bank,” said Yana Smyrnova, a 35-year-old singer, referring to Russian weapons on the east side of the Dnipro River that runs near the city.
Smyrnova said she and her friends had to fetch water from the river to bathe and flush their toilets, and only a few residents were lucky enough to have generators that powered pumps to get water from wells.
The governor of Kherson region, Yaroslav Yanushevych, said the authorities decided to maintain the curfew from 5pm to 8am and ban people from leaving or entering the city as a security measure.
“The enemy has undermined all critical infrastructure,” Yanushevych told Ukrainian TV. “We’re trying to get together in a few days and (then) open up the city,” he said.
Zelenskiy also warned residents of Kherson about the presence of Russian mines. “I ask you please not to forget that the situation in the Kherson region remains very dangerous,” he said.
Local authorities said most of the city was without electricity or water. Yuriy Sobolevskiy, first deputy chairman of the Kherson regional council, told Ukrainian television that while authorities were working to restore critical services, the humanitarian situation remained “very difficult.”
Officials reported some early progress in restoring normalcy in the city.
Zelenskiy’s adviser Kyrylo Tymoshenko said on Telegram that a mobile connection was already working in the city center, while the head of Ukraine’s state railways said train services to Kherson were expected to resume this week.
Residents said the Russians had gradually withdrawn over the past two weeks, but their final departure became clear only when the first Ukrainian troops entered Kherson on Thursday.
“It was kind of gradual,” said Alexii Sandakov, 44, a videographer. “First it was their special police. Then the ordinary police and their administration. Then you started to see less soldiers in the supermarkets and then their military vehicles leaving.”
Many residents interviewed by Reuters said they tried to minimize their contact with Russians and knew of people who had been arrested and mistreated for showing any expression of Ukrainian patriotism.
Reuters could not immediately verify such accounts.
Russia has denied abuses against civilians or attacks on civilians since the war began.
“We had to bury our (Ukrainian) flag,” said Shaposhnikova, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap. “If you wear something yellow and blue (the national colors of Ukraine) you can be shot or invited to a cellar where you would be tortured.”
She said Russian police arrested a friend of hers who was a volunteer delivering humanitarian aid to outlying areas. They took her to an underground prison and deprived her of sleep for three days while they interrogated her, demanding to know whether she was revealing her positions to the Ukrainian military, Shaposhnikova said.
Sandakov said Russian troops ransacked the homes of Ukrainian soldiers who left the city before the takeover and would search the bodies of young men passing checkpoints for tattoos of Ukrainian nationalist groups.
Reuters could not independently verify these comments.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said it had retaken 179 settlements and 4,500 square kilometers along the Dnipro River since the start of the week.
The general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces reported continued heavy fighting along the eastern front in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Over the past 24 hours, missile and artillery attacks have occurred in Sumy, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk, Zelenskiy said.
© Thomson Reuters 2022.