ANDRIIVKA, Ukraine (AP) – Ukraine gathered its dead and collected evidence of Russian atrocities on the ruined outskirts of Kyiv, as the two sides geared up Wednesday for what could become a climactic battle by Moscow’s forces to seize the country’s industrial east.
As the U.S. and its Western allies moved to impose new sanctions against the Kremlin over what they branded war crimes, Russia completed the pullout of all of its estimated 24,000 or more troops from the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas in the north, and they have gone into Belarus or Russia to resupply and reorganize, a U.S. defence official speaking on condition of anonymity said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Moscow is now marshalling reinforcements and trying to push deep into Ukraine in the east.
“The fate of our land and of our people is being decided. We know what we are fighting for. And we will do everything to win,” he said.
Ukrainian officials have stepped up calls for civilians near the front lines in the east to evacuate ahead of the anticipated Russian offensive. Local authorities in the town of Sloviansk said postal and pension operations are being moved out and bank branches are shutting down.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence estimates, said it will take Russia as much as a month to regroup for a major push on eastern Ukraine. Almost a quarter of its battalion tactical groups in the country have been rendered “non-combat-effective” and have either withdrawn or merged with other units, the official said.
In the scarred and silent streets of Bucha and other towns around Ukraine’s capital where Russian forces withdrew over the past several days, investigators sought to document what appeared to be widespread killings of civilians. Some victims had evidently been shot at close range. Some were found with their hands bound or their flesh burned.
At a cemetery in Bucha, workers began to load more than 60 bodies apparently collected over the past day into a grocery shipping truck for transport to a facility for further investigation.
More bodies were yet to be collected in Bucha. The Associated Press saw two in a house in a silent neighbourhood. From time to time there was the muffled boom of workers clearing the town of mines and other unexploded ordnance.
In Andriivka, a village about 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of Kyiv, two police officers from the nearby town of Makariv came Tuesday to identify a man whose body was in a field beside tank tracks. Officers found 20 bodies in the Makariv area, Capt. Alla Pustova said.
Andriivka residents said the Russians arrived in early March and took locals’ phones. Some people were detained, then released. Others met unknown fates. Some described sheltering for weeks in cellars normally used for storing vegetables for winter.
With the sixth week of the war drawing to a close, the soldiers were gone, and Russian armoured personnel carriers, a tank and other vehicles sat destroyed on both ends of the road running through the village. Several buildings were reduced to mounds of bricks and corrugated metal. Residents struggled without heat, electricity or cooking gas.
“First we were scared, now we are hysterical,” said Valentyna Klymenko, 64. She said she, her husband and two neighbours weathered the siege by sleeping on stacks of potatoes covered with a mattress and blankets. “We didn’t cry at first. Now we are crying.”
To the north of the village, in the town of Borodyanka, rescue workers combed through the rubble of apartment blocks, looking for bodies. Mine-disposal units worked nearby.
The Kremlin has insisted its troops have committed no war crimes, charging that the images out of Bucha were staged by the Ukrainians.
Thwarted in their efforts to take the capital, increasing numbers of President Vladimir Putin’s troops, along with mercenaries, have been reported moving into the Donbas, Ukraine’s mostly Russian-speaking industrial heartland in the east.
Overnight, Russian forces attacked a fuel depot and a factory in the Dnipropetrovsk region, just west of the Donbas, authorities said. In the Luhansk region, which is part of the Donbas, Russian shelling Wednesday set fire to at least 10 multi-story buildings and a mall in the town of Sievierodonetsk, the regional governor reported. There was no immediate word on deaths or injuries.
Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas since 2014. Ahead of its Feb. 24 invasion, Moscow recognized the Donbas’ Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states.
Ukrainian authorities have said the bodies of at least 410 civilians have been found in towns around Kyiv, and Associated Press journalists in Bucha counted dozens of corpses in civilian clothes and interviewed Ukrainians who told of witnessing atrocities.
In a video address Tuesday to the U.N. Security Council, Zelenskyy said that civilians had been tortured, shot in the back of the head, thrown down wells, blown up with grenades in their apartments and crushed to death by tanks while in cars.
He said that those who gave the orders and those who carried them out should face war crimes charges in front of a Nuremberg-type tribunal.
In reaction to the alleged atrocities, the U.S. announced sanctions against Putin’s two adult daughters and said it is toughening penalties against Russian banks. Britain banned investment in Russia and pledged to end its dependence on Russian coal and oil by the end of the year.
The European Union was also expected to take additional punitive measures, including an embargo on coal.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, the aid group Doctors without Borders said its staff witnessed an attack Monday on a cancer hospital in a residential district of the southern city of Mykolaiv. The group said it was the third known strike in recent days on a hospital in the port city, whose capture is key to giving Russia control of the Black Sea coast.
It said it had no overall death toll, but its team saw one body.
The group said it also saw numerous small holes in the ground, scattered over a large area, that suggested the use of cluster bombs. Russia has denied using cluster munitions in Ukraine. The use of such weapons against civilians can be a violation of international law.
In the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, which is part of the Donbas and has been the scene of some of the worst suffering of the war, British defense officials said 160,000 people remained trapped by Russian airstrikes and heavy fighting.
A humanitarian-relief convoy accompanied by the Red Cross has been trying without success to get into the city since Friday.
Negotiators from Russia and Ukraine have been discussing ways to end the fighting. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said those talks continue despite the war crime allegations.
Adam Schreck & Andrea Rosa/The Associated Press
Oleksandr Stashevskyi and Cara Anna in Bucha, Ukraine, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.