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Russia claims Bucha civilian massacre faked as a "provocation" as outrage builds over Ukraine war atrocities

Russia accused of civilian murders in Ukraine
Images of civilian bodies littering Ukraine streets lead to accusation of Russia war crimes 03:43

Dnipro, Ukraine — Russian forces have withdrawn from around Ukraine's capital Kyiv, but there has been no celebration in the country. What they've left behind is difficult to comprehend, and even more difficult to see. CBS News warns our readers that both the video report above and the article below contain disturbing material.

Independent journalists who went into the town of Bucha, just northwest of the capital, over the weekend found the streets littered with bodies. The dead were wearing civilian clothing, and some had their hands tied behind their backs, apparently executed. 

Others were buried in a mass grave. More than 300 residents were killed, according to the town's mayor.

A man gestures at a mass grave in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, April 3, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty

In the central Ukrainian village of Kalynivka, closer to the southern and eastern Ukrainian cities Russia has hammered with artillery and air strikes for weeks, Irina Kostenko said the Russians killed her only son, Oleksei.

She said she brought her son's body back home in a wheelbarrow and then buried him by herself in the garden, wrapped in a rug, in a shallow grave.

He was killed at 27, but Kostenko clung to a photo of him as a child as she stood by his grave.

"This is my love, my sweetheart," she said.

CBS News senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams reports that Ukrainian officials shared photos taken on a highway outside the capital over the weekend showing the naked corpses of at least four women. The officials said Russian troops tried to burn the women's bodies. 

Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented cases of alleged rape by Russian troops during the invasion, which Vladimir Putin launched on February 24. Ukrainian officials are investigating. 

Zelenskyy calls Russian assault on Ukraine a "genocide" on "Face the Nation" 07:59

Speaking Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of committing genocide in his country. "We are being destroyed and exterminated" he said, "and this is happening in the Europe of the 21st century."

On Monday, Zelenskyy visited Bucha to inspect the damage and speak with residents. Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine's Interior Ministry, said the president found "evidence of mass killings."   

According to Geraschchenko, a BBC correspondent asked Zelenskyy if he still believed it would be possible to negotiate for peace with Russia. The president said it would, "because Ukraine must find peace. We are in 21st century Europe. We will continue our diplomatic, and military efforts."

Ukainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (C) speaks to reporters in the town of Bucha, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, April 4, 2022. RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty

The southeast port city of Mariupol has been besieged and bombarded by the Russians for almost 40 days, since the war started. Thousands may have been killed there alone, according to the United Nations, but it's impossible to get an accurate picture because Mariupol has been cut off from the outside world.

Ilona, 17, and her 10-year-old brother Milan made it out of the city on Friday with their parents. CBS News found them sitting silently at an evacuation center, apparently shell-shocked.

"There were constant bombing raids, constant explosions," Ilona told Williams. There were times they thought they would die in their city, but she said tried throughout the ordeal to "hold ourselves together — we tried not to panic."

Women refugees share the horrors they faced while stuck in Mariupol amid the war: "We carried dead bodies" 01:36

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said almost two weeks ago that the U.S. had determined that Russian forces had committed "war crimes" in Ukraine, accusing them of "indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians."

On Sunday, he told CNN the images from Bucha were "a punch to the gut," and he said the U.S. was "working to document" and provide its own information "to the relevant institutions and organizations that will put all of this together" to ensure any forces guilty of war crimes would he held accountable.

"We can't normalize this," he said. "This is the reality of what's going on every single day, as long as Russia's brutality against Ukraine continues. That's why it needs to come to an end."

On Monday, Russian officials denied civilians were killed in Bucha. The Russian defense ministry claimed the gruesome scenes in Bucha were faked by Ukrainian forces as a "provocation." It has become a common refrain from Moscow, issued after previous alleged atrocities came to light in this war, and during Russia's long involvement in Syria's brutal civil war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the reports of what he called a "fake attack" in Bucha and said Russia was demanding "an urgent meeting of the Security Council on this particular issue because we see such provocations as a direct threat to international peace and security."  

But the United Nations human rights chief was among those voicing horror at the scenes from Bucha on Monday.

Congressman on how Putin's war in Ukraine mimics actions in Syria 12:27

"I am horrified by the images of civilians lying dead on the streets and in improvised graves in the town of Bucha in Ukraine," the U.N.'s Michelle Bachelet said in a statement. "Reports emerging from this and other areas raise serious and disturbing questions about possible war crimes, grave breaches of international humanitarian law and serious violations of international human rights law."

CBS News correspondent Pamela Falk at the U.N. said U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield had discussed with Romania's prime minister on Monday America's intention to try to get Russia's suspended from the U.N. Human Rights Council. 

According to a readout of Thomas-Greenfield's meeting with the Romanian leader, she said Russia's expulsion from the rights body was needed, "in light of the mounting evidence that members of Russian forces are committing war crimes in Ukraine and following horrific reports about violence against civilians in Bucha."

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, standing aside his Polish counterpart during a visit to Warsaw, said he was "deeply shocked by news of the exceptionally cruel acts of violence against civilians near Kyiv."

"The murder of innocent civilians is a violation of international humanitarian law and is unacceptable and I strongly condemn these acts," he added. "The Russian assault is a blatant violation of international law."

In London, the head of Britain's equivalent of the CIA, MI6 chief Richard Moore, said in a tweet that Russia had planned mass-executions as part of its strategy in Ukraine. He shared an earlier message from the U.K. Foreign Secretary demanding that those responsible for the killings documented in Kyiv's suburbs be held to account.

As Williams reported, the Russian soldiers accused of massacring unarmed civilians in Bucha and elsewhere in Ukraine will likely never be brought to justice.

Bodies of civilians lie in the street, amid Russia's invasion on Ukraine, in Bucha
The body of a man with his hands bound behind his back, who according to residents was shot by Russian soldiers, lies in the street amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Bucha, Ukraine, April 3, 2022. ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS

But despite the horrific images and thousands of his own soldiers being killed on the battlefield, a new poll in Russia found that Putin's approval rating had risen to 83% since the invasion began.

While thousands have been arrested for protesting against the Ukraine war in Russian cities over the last month, many Russians rely entirely on the country's state-run news organizations for their information. Those outlets present only the Kremlin's version of what Putin calls the "special military operation," and no Russian media outlets are free to report the truth about what's happening in Ukraine.

How Russia cracks down on anti-war protests 03:46
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