Ukraine’s authorities have urged civilians in the Donbas region and around Kharkiv to evacuate after Russian forces stepped up their offensive in eastern Ukraine and further evidence emerged of atrocities by Moscow’s troops elsewhere in the country.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said on Wednesday the military authorities called on residents living in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, as well as parts of Kharkiv province, to leave “while they still had the chance”.
Russia has withdrawn most of its forces from around Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, and has begun redeploying them to the east, Britain’s defence intelligence confirmed. Serhiy Haidai, the head of Ukraine’s Luhansk military administration, said Russian forces were regrouping and would “try to conduct an offensive” within three to four days.
The town of Severodonetsk, 60km north-west of Luhansk, came under heavy artillery bombardment on Wednesday.
As Ukrainian forces braced for a fresh Russian attack in Donbas, more evidence emerged of the killing of civilians in areas around the capital that were under Russian control until recently. Images of atrocities in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, caused global revulsion this week and has spurred western capitals to impose more sanctions on Moscow.
Officials and residents in Borodyanka, 40km north-west of the capital, said mass casualties from Russian bombing and artillery were likely after the town was captured at the beginning of the war. Most of Borodyanka’s buildings were destroyed before Moscow’s troops pulled back late last month.
As in Mariupol, the besieged south-eastern port city, the remaining residents of Borodyanka were trapped in their basements by the bombardment and had been left without power, heat or running water.
“Bombs were falling for days. We were hiding in the cellars for weeks,” said Halyna Ivanivna, a pensioner. “And when we came out, we found our city was destroyed.”
Denys Monastyrsky, Ukraine’s interior minister, said scores of civilians had died in Borodyanka and hundreds more were unaccounted for. However, it was too early to give an accurate estimate, he said.
Ukrainian investigators have spent the past few days gathering evidence for possible war crime charges against Russian invaders. Monastyrsky said Ukrainian national guardsmen had found a cache of documents in a nearby village with details of the Russian military unit that had occupied the area “so the criminals are already known by name”.
The scenes of devastation in Borodyanka — which Kyiv claims can only have been caused by the deliberate targeting of residential buildings by Russian artillery and aircraft — are similar to those that have emerged from Mariupol, which has been under siege by Vladimir Putin’s invading forces since early March.
The Ukrainian government believes as many as 5,000 people in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of some 400,000, have been killed in the siege. On Wednesday Mariupol’s mayor said that Russian mobile crematoria had begun incinerating the bodies of people killed in the city.
“The killers are covering their tracks,” said Vadym Boichenko on the city council’s Telegram channel. “In Mariupol, Russian mobile crematoria have begun working,” he wrote.
“After the widespread international publicity about genocide in Bucha, the top leadership of the Russian Federation ordered the destruction of any evidence of crimes committed by its army in Mariupol.”
Boichenko, citing eyewitnesses, said Russia was using special brigades formed by “collaborators” inside the city to carry out the work.
After hundreds of bodies of civilians were found in Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs after Russian troops withdrew, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russians were planning to “hide their guilt” over further alleged atrocities carried out in other parts of Ukraine, including Mariupol.