MOURNERS react during the funeral near Lviv of a Ukrainian serviceman who was killed during a battle with Russian troops.—Reuters
MOURNERS react during the funeral near Lviv of a Ukrainian serviceman who was killed during a battle with Russian troops.—Reuters

VILNIUS: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday said investigators had received reports of “hundreds of cases of rape” in areas previously occupied by Russian troops, including sexual assaults of small children.

Russian troops have been accused of widespread atrocities across the country, particularly in areas around Kyiv from which they have now withdrawn.

Moscow denies the allegations.

“In areas freed from the occupiers, the recording and investigation of war crimes committed by Russia continues,” Zelensky told Lithuanian lawmakers via video link.

Russia closes in on Mariupol as Putin strikes defiant tone

“New mass graves are found almost daily.

“Testimonials are being collected. Thousands and thousands of victims. Hundreds of cases of torture. Bodies continue to be found in drains and cellars,” he added.

“Hundreds of cases of rape have been recorded, including those of young girls and very young children. Even of a baby!” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda responded to that last claim by saying, “It’s simply impossible to imagine a greater horror.” Having documented victim accounts, human rights organisations say rape is being used as a “weapon of war” in Ukraine.

One Ukrainian woman told AFP that she was sexually assaulted by two Russian troops after they learned that her husband was a soldier.

Massive onslaught

Meanwhile, Russian troops on Tuesday intensified a campaign to take the port city of Mariupol, part of an anticipated massive onslaught across eastern Ukraine, as President Vladimir Putin made a defiant case for the war on Russia’s neighbour.

Moscow is believed to be trying to connect occupied Crimea with Russian-backed separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas, and has laid siege to the strategically located city, once home to more than 400,000 people.

As the fighting dragged toward its seventh week, the Ukrainian army fought desperately to defend Mariupol against the Russian offensive.

“The connection with the units of the defence forces that heroically hold the city is stable and maintained,” the Land Forces of Ukraine wrote on Telegram.

However, the Russian defence ministry said its army had thwarted an attempt to break the siege with “airstrikes and artillery fire” at a factory in a northern district of the city.

In his nightly address, Zelensky on Monday made another plea to his allies for more weapons to boost the defence of the city.

“We are not getting as much as we need to end this war sooner. To completely destroy the enemy on our land... in particular, to unblock Mariupol,” he said. Zelensky has said he believes Russia has killed “at least tens of thousands of people” in the city.

With little hope of a quick end to fighting, Putin pledged Moscow would proceed on its own timetable with its military operation, rebuffing repeated international calls for a ceasefire.

“Our task is to fulfil and achieve all the goals set, minimising losses. And we will act rhythmically, calmly, according to the plan originally proposed by the General Staff,” Putin said during a televised press conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. He also dismissed as “fake” reports of the discovery of hundreds of dead bodies of civilians in the town of Bucha outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv after the withdrawal of Moscow’s forces.

Images taken by journalists on the ground, including AFP reporters, of bodies littering the streets of Bucha sparked worldwide outrage and calls for an investigation into possible war crimes. Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said on Tuesday that more than 400 people had been found dead so far and 25 women reported being raped, as the town prepares for the return of residents who fled the fighting.

“What people will find in their homes is shocking, and they will remember the Russian occupiers for a very long time,” he said. Ukraine’s border force said on Tuesday that more than 870,000 people who fled abroad since the start of the war had returned to the country, including a growing number of women and children.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2022

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