Civilians are killed as Russian troops flee advance into Ukraine

Ukrainian forces stepped up their counter-offensive against Russian forces in the Kharkiv region on Friday as more evidence of violence against civilians in formerly occupied territories surfaced.

Just east of the village of Kyrylivka in the Kharkiv region, on a exposed stretch of road near the front line, lay the bodies of a group of at least 11 civilians, who were gunned down in cars and a minibus.

Ukrainian troops, who recently retook the area, told AFP the six-vehicle convoy was attacked by the retreating Russians, who held Kyrylivka until earlier this week.

There was no way to independently confirm this version of events, and reporters were only able to remain on the scene for a short time before artillery fire broke out on the still-active front.

On Wednesday, an official at the Kremlin’s deputy administration in the neighboring Lugansk region accused Kiev forces of firing on a civilian convoy in the area, reportedly killing 30 people.

– bullet holes –

The area where the attack took place, a road through farmland east of the industrial city of Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region, was recaptured in the last week, and heavy gunfire broke out.

“The vehicles all moved together as a civilian convoy. We can see that there is almost no distance between the vehicles,” said Filya, a Ukrainian soldier who guided AFP to the scene of the crime.

“And obviously they were shot at because you can see the bullet holes… A car was set on fire and it’s impossible to spot the people without an expert,” he said.

In early September, after a lightning-fast counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops recaptured Kupyansk — a railroad junction once used by the Russians to supply their troops — and a border crossing on the Oskil River.

But villages like Kyrylivka on the east bank of the Oskil were only secured four or five days ago, and the slaughtered civilian convoy was near an area where both sides had been fighting.

Russian forces have often been accused of murdering civilians in occupied territories during the seven-month war, and on Friday a Russian attack killed 25 civilians in the southern Zaporizhia region.

But as Ukrainian forces retook East Kupyansk, they shot at civilian model cars daubed with the Russian occupier’s “Z” symbol and driven by uniformed men, now leaving bloated bodies on the side of the road.

Whoever shot the convoy, the victims appear to be civilians.

A small van or minibus burned to the ground with the charred remains of four people inside. At least one of these bodies was small enough to have been a child.

A cream-colored Lada with an open trunk pulls up in front of the bus, and a middle-aged man in a hat and blue jeans lies dead on the street next to a plastic bag full of luggage.

In the back seat of a blue car, an elderly lady lies curled up under a down jacket as if asleep. In the front seat, the driver who was killed has a blanket over his knees, suggesting he was parked.

In all, AFP reporters counted 11 bodies at the scene, which has yet to be cleared or visited by prosecutors or forensic investigators.

A short distance away in Kyrylivka, confident Ukrainian forces are now in command and a thin but steady stream of refugees are piling on foot towards the bridge over the river and to safety.

– ‘Kamikaze Drone’ –

Smoke is still rising from the left front tire of a Russian APC that Ukrainian troops say was destroyed by a “kamikaze drone,” and three Russian tanks were captured more or less intact.

One, a T-90A, is considered a grand prize.

The model entered service in 2004 and is the most modern tank used by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine. This one was not destroyed but appears to have been left behind after falling into a ditch.

Filya’s unit is confident they can recover it, repair it and return it – and its relatively advanced thermal imaging sensors – to the fight along with two other run-down looking older and abandoned T-72s.

The Russian troops not only gave up their hardware. A dead or wounded soldier was already on a stretcher when his comrades dumped him at the roadside before fleeing.