(Kyiv, Ukraine) – Satellite images released on Thursday appeared to show mass graves near Mariupol, and local officials accused Russia of burying up to 9,000 Ukrainian civilians there to hide the slaughter that took place during the port city’s siege.
The images emerged hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s victory in the battle for Mariupol, despite the presence of an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters still holed up in a giant steel mill. Putin ordered his troops not to storm the fortress, but to seal it off “so that not even a fly can get through”.
Satellite image provider Maxar Technologies released the photos, which they said showed more than 200 mass graves in a city where Ukrainian officials say the Russians buried Mariupol residents killed in the fighting. The images showed long lines of graves stretching away from an existing cemetery in the town of Manhush outside Mariupol.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused the Russians of “concealing their military crimes” by taking the bodies of civilians out of the city and burying them in Manhush.
The graves could contain as many as 9,000 dead, the Mariupol City Council said in a post on the Telegram messaging app on Thursday.
Boychenko referred to Russian actions in the city as “the new Babi Yar,” a reference to the site of several Nazi massacres that killed nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews in 1941.
“The bodies of the dead were brought in truckloads and basically just thrown into mounds,” Boychenko’s aide Piotr Andryushchenko told Telegram.
There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin. When mass graves and hundreds of dead civilians were discovered in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv after Russian troops withdrew, Russian officials denied that their soldiers had killed civilians there and accused Ukraine of orchestrating the atrocities.
In a statement, Maxar said a review of previous images indicates the graves at Manhush were dug in late March and expanded in recent weeks.
After nearly two deadly months of bombardment, most of which reduced Mariupol to a smoking ruin, Russian forces appear to control the rest of the strategically important southern city, including its vital but now badly damaged port.
But a few thousand Ukrainian soldiers have stubbornly held out at the steel mill for weeks, Moscow estimates, despite beatings from Russian forces and repeated calls for their surrender. About 1,000 civilians were also trapped there, according to Ukrainian officials.
Instead of sending troops to finish off the defenders in a potentially bloody frontal attack, Russia apparently intends to hold the siege and wait for the fighters to surrender if they run out of food or ammunition.
Boychenko rejected any notion that Mariupol had fallen into Russian hands.
“The city was, is and will always be Ukrainian,” he explained. “Today our brave warriors, our heroes, defend our city.”
The capture of Mariupol would be the Kremlin’s biggest victory in the Ukraine war to date. It would help Moscow secure more of the coast, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia occupied in 2014, and free up more forces to join the larger and potentially more consequential battle now raging over the eastern industrial Heartland of Ukraine, Ukraine takes Donbass.
Putin expressed concern for the lives of Russian troops when he decided against sending them to clear the sprawling Azovstal Steelworks, where die-hard defenders were hiding in a maze of underground passages.
Speaking jointly with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Putin said: “The completion of combat operations to liberate Mariupol is a success,” and he congratulated Shoigu.
Shoigu predicted that the steel mill could be taken in three to four days, but Putin said that was “pointless”.
“There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground through these industrial facilities,” the Russian leader said. “Round off this industrial area so even a fly can’t get through.”
The facility covers 11 square kilometers (4 sq mi) and is criss-crossed with approximately 24 kilometers (15 mi) of tunnels and bunkers.
“The Russian agenda now is not to conquer these really difficult places for Ukrainians to hold their own in the urban centers, but to try to conquer territories and also encircle the Ukrainian forces and announce a great victory,” he said retired British Rear Admiral Chris Parri said.
Russian officials have been saying for weeks that conquering the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass is the main goal of the war. Moscow forces this week opened the new phase of fighting along a 480-kilometer front from the northeastern city of Kharkiv to the Sea of Azov.
While Russia continued heavy air and artillery strikes in those areas, it appeared to have gained no significant ground in recent days, according to military analysts, who said Moscow’s forces were still stepping up the offensive.
A senior US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, said the Ukrainians are hampering Russian efforts to advance south from Izyum.
Rockets fell in a neighborhood of Kharkiv on Thursday, and at least two civilians were burned in their car. A school and apartment building were also hit, and firefighters attempted to put out a blaze and search for those trapped.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russian forces had kidnapped a local official leading a humanitarian convoy in the southern Kherson region. She said the Russians offered to free him in exchange for Russian prisoners of war, but she called this unacceptable.
Vereshchuk also said efforts to set up three humanitarian corridors in the Kherson region collapsed on Thursday because Russian troops failed to cease fire.
Meanwhile, western nations rushed to throw heavy weapons at Ukraine to help it counter the offensive in the east.
US President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million in military aid, including heavy artillery, 144,000 rounds of ammunition and drones. But he also warned that the $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian assistance approved by Congress last month is “almost exhausted” and more is needed.
All in all, more than 100,000 people in Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of about 430,000, were believed to be trapped with little or no food, water, warmth or medicine. According to Ukrainian authorities, over 20,000 people were killed in the siege.
The city has garnered global attention as the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, including deadly air raids on a maternity hospital and theater.
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of launching attacks to block the evacuation of civilians from the city. On Thursday, at least two Russian attacks hit the town of Zaporizhia, a staging post for people fleeing Mariupol. No one was injured, the regional governor said.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia is likely to want to show significant achievements ahead of Victory Day on May 9, the proudest day on the Russian calendar, marking Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II.
“This could impact how quickly and vigorously they attempt to conduct operations leading up to that date,” the ministry said.
In other developments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Ukrainians living in areas of southern Ukraine under Russian control not to hand over their IDs to the Russians, which he said could be used to “fake a so-called referendum on our country.” ” to a Moscow-friendly government.
“It’s a real possibility,” he said in his late night video address to the nation. “Beware.”
Associated Press journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Felipe Dana in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Yesica Fish in Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Danica Kirka in London; and Robert Burns and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this report, as did other AP staffers around the world.
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https://time.com/6169602/mariupol-ukraine-mass-graves/ Satellite images show possible mass graves near Mariupol