BUCHA, Ukraine (Reuters) -Forensic investigators began exhuming a mass grave in Bucha on Friday, wrapping in black plastic and laying out the bodies of civilians who officials say were killed while Russian troops occupied the town just northwest of Kyiv.
Ruslan Kravchenko, from the prosecutor’s office in Bucha, said they had exhumed 20 bodies, 18 of whom had firearms and shrapnel wounds. He said two women had been identified, one of whom had worked at a supermarket in the town centre.
“There are witnesses who can confirm that these people were killed by the Russian forces. Without any reason, they were just walking down the street or being evacuated,” he told Reuters.
“Some of them were just speaking Ukrainian.”
The Kremlin said on Tuesday that allegations that Russian forces had executed civilians in Bucha were a “monstrous forgery” aimed at denigrating the Russian army.
Kravchenko said the forensic investigators would work to build up a picture of what happened to those buried in the grave, adding the investigation into the deaths was “unprecedented” in scale.
The specialists, clad in white suits, covered the graves with plastic sheeting as rain fell.
Since Russian troops pulled back from Bucha last week, Ukrainian officials say hundreds of civilians have been found dead. Bucha’s mayor has said dozens were the victims of extra-judicial killings carried out by Russian troops
Bucha’s deputy mayor, Taras Shapravskyi, said on Friday more than 360 civilians were killed and around 260-280 were buried by other residents in the mass grave. He added that there were two parallel trenches dug at the mass grave site, with bodies piled on top of each other in layers.
Reuters could not independently verify those figures.
The deaths of civilians in Bucha have been widely condemned by Western nations as war crimes.
Reuters has witnessed the remains of five victims in Bucha who were shot through the head. One had his hands tied behind his back. Another his feet tied. Reuters has not been able to independently determine who was responsible.
The Kremlin, which has denied deliberately targeting civilians following its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, casts the evidence of civilian killings in Bucha as a cynical ploy by Ukraine and its Western backers, who Moscow says are gripped by discriminatory anti-Russian paranoia.
Moscow calls its action a “special military operation” aimed at demilitarising and “denazifying” Ukraine. Ukraine and the West say the invasion was illegal and unjustified.
(Reporting by Simon Gardner and Mari SaitoWriting by Elizabeth PiperEditing by Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)