September 30, 2014 | 2:21 pm
It didn’t take long for Russia’s launch of a genocide investigation into Ukraine’s political and military leadership to draw counter-fire from Kiev. Just hours after Moscow’s announcement, the Ukrainian prosecutor-general’s office opened its own inquiry, this time into alleged Russian support for “terrorist and separatist groups”.
The Russian investigation follows a call from Moscow last week for an independent inquiry into alleged mass graves discovered in the area surrounding the village of Nyzhnia Krynka, approximately 20 miles northeast of Donetsk city, from where locals say the pro-Kiev National Guard battalion had recently retreated.
“Died for Putin’s lies” reads the inscription on a makeshift plaque that marks two of the three grave sites at Komunar mine, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Another sign nearby – written in Russian – lists the date of death as “27/08/2014” alongside the names of four individuals, and in one additional case a simple set of initials.
According to initial statements by rebel leaders, the burial sites discovered on September 23 contained scores of bodies.
Speaking to the Russian News Service, Alexander Zakharchenko, self-declared Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed there were about 40 bodies of civilians, prisoners of war and Ukrainian militia soldiers. Over the weekend, the rebels claimed a fourth grave had been found close by with an unknown number of victims; the report could not be independently identified.
Other pro-Kremlin media outlets have reported as yet unsubstantiated claims by the rebels that amongst the dead were victims with their hands tied behind their back and who had been shot point blank in the head, or beheaded.
Since then, however, the number of confirmed dead has been significantly reduced and there has been no independent verification of the identity of the bodies or the causes of death.
“Around ten bodies have been removed from the site,” a senior official in the rebel defense ministry told VICE News. “There could be many more, but we can’t continue digging until the area has been demined,” he added.
The director of Donetsk morgue, Anatolievich Kalashnikov, told VICE News by telephone that nine bodies had been brought to the morgues in the region from the area of the burial sites.
Four bodies seen at the grave by OSCE representatives on September 24 were in “such an advanced state of decomposition, there was no immediate way to tell how they died or who they were,” Michael Bociurkiw, spokesperson for the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told VICE News. “There are no forensic experts in our team, and we did not meet with any at the site, but we are happy to facilitate access for any outside experts as we did with MH17,” he added.
Speaking about the claims that some of the bodies were found with their hands bound, the OSCE’s Bociurkiw said he had “nothing further to add on that”.
Announced on Tuesday, Ukraine’s counter-war crime investigation is expected to focus on the detention of Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenk – accused by Moscow of killing two Russian journalists in Ukraine.
However, the statement released by the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said that other issues will also be examined and accused officials from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation of “illegal interference” in the work of Ukraine’s law enforcement bodies and armed forces.
“[The interference] is aimed at aiding the terrorist organizations ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ in their criminal activities and obstructing the performance of duties by government officials,” it said.
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have highlighted mounting evidence that both sides in the conflict have violated international laws of war in a host of ways, including indiscriminate use of artillery in populated areas, irregular detention, torture and even executions.
The opening of legal inquiries by both sides in the conflict comes as continued shelling in pockets of the region puts further pressure on a ceasefire agreed in Minsk on September 5.
Despite now being more than three weeks into the supposed peace deal, shelling has not stopped in several flash points across the region including Donetsk airport, Shchastya and Popasna.
On Monday the worst outbreak of fighting in a week left at least 12 dead.
Ukraine Clashes Kill 12 as Donetsk Airport Battles Threaten Fragile Ceasefire. Read more here
Ukrainian army officials said at least nine soldiers were killed and 27 wounded in just one day of clashes, seven of them in a single attack by rebels close to Donetsk airport, which has been the focus of fierce battles as the separatists try to rout Kiev’s forces from their last foothold in the city.
According to city officials, three civilians were also killed and five wounded by shelling overnight Sunday on a residential neighborhood near the aerodrome in the north of Donetsk.
Despite a deal on September 20th to create a buffer zone which saw both sides tentatively agreeing to withdraw heavy artillery from within firing range of one another, the details of the pact were almost immediately contested, with the area around the airport cited as a key bone of contention.
Speaking to journalists on Saturday, Ihor Kolomoysky, the oligarch governor of Dnipropetrovsk who has bankrolled several of the pro-Kiev battalions fighting on the frontline of Ukraine’s anti-terror operation, said that an agreement had been reached with the rebels to abandon the airport in return for a large swathe of territory to the south of Donetsk.
However, military spokesperson Andriy Lysenko later denied the claim saying the airport “was, is and will be under the control of the Ukrainian military.”
Meanwhile, in a move that could spark a backlash in the divided Ukrainian held city of Kharkiv, pro-Kiev demonstrators felled a 66-feet tall statue of Vladimir Lenin late on Sunday evening.
Several monuments to the Soviet era dictator were desecrated and pulled down by protesters during the Maidan revolution in early 2014, but the latest toppling is amongst the first in the country’s east where pro-Russian sentiment is stronger.
Back in April thousands took to the streets for pro-Russian demonstrations in Kharkiv, some of which descended into violent clashes. Now, in a bid to keep the peace the city’s mayor Gennady Kernes, who has managed to straddle the divide between the two warring factions, called the destruction “barbaric” and pledged to rebuild the monument.
In Kiev, however, Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, expressed little sympathy for those who might object to the statue’s toppling. “Lenin? Let him fall down. As long as nobody suffers under his weight,” the minister wrote on his Facebook page. “I ordered the police to protect the people and not the idol.”