Civilians lie slain as Russian troops flee Ukraine push in Kharkiv region

The body of a civilian lies inside a car in Kyrylivka, in a recently retaken area near Ukraine's Kharkiv. PHOTO: AFP

KYRYLIVKA, Ukraine - Ukraine's forces pushed forward their counteroffensive against Russian troops in the Kharkiv region on Friday, as more evidence emerged of violence against civilians in formerly occupied territory.

Just to the east of the village of Kyrylivka in the Kharkiv region, on an exposed section of road close to the front line, lay the bodies of a group of at least 11 civilians gunned down in cars and a minibus.

The Ukrainian troops who have recently recaptured the area told AFP the six-vehicle convoy had been attacked by the retreating Russians, who had occupied 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 began to erupt on the still active front line.

On Wednesday, an official from the Kremlin proxy administration in the neighbouring region of Lugansk had accused Kyiv's forces of firing on a civilian convoy in the area, allegedly killing 30 people.

Bullet holes

The area where the attack took place, a road through farmland east of the Kharkiv region industrial town of Kupyansk, was recaptured in the last week and there have been heavy exchanges of fire.

"The vehicles were moving all 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.

"And obviously they were attacked by gunfire because you can see the bullet holes... One car was set on fire and it's impossible to recognise the people without an expert," he said.

Ukrainian troops recaptured Kupyansk - a rail hub once used by the Russians to supply their troops - and a crossing point on the Oskil river in early September after a lightning counteroffensive.

But villages like Kyrylivka on the east bank of the Oskil were not secured until four or five days ago, and the slaughtered civilian convoy was close to an area where both sides had fought.

Russian forces have often been accused of murdering civilians in occupied areas during the seven-month-old war, and on Friday a Russian strike killed 25 civilians in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia.

But when Ukrainian forces recaptured eastern Kupiansk they shot up civilian model cars daubed with the Russian occupier's "Z" symbol and driven by uniformed men, leaving now bloated bodies by the roadside.

Human remains were found inside the shell of a burnt-out vehicle, in Kyrylivka. PHOTO: AFP

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

A small van or minibus was completely burnt out, with the carbonised remains of four people within. At least one of these corpses was small enough to have been a child.

A cream-coloured Lada car with its boot open is stopped ahead of the bus, with a middle-aged man in a hat and blue jeans lying dead in the road beside a plastic bag of luggage.

On the rear seat of a blue car, an elderly lady lies curled as if asleep, under a down jacket. In the front seat, the slain driver has a blanket across his knees, suggesting he had been parked.

Abandoned Russian tanks in Kyrylivka, in a recently retaken area near Ukraine's Kharkiv. PHOTO: AFP

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 charge and a thin but steady stream of refugees are filing through on foot towards the bridge across the river and safety.

'Kamikaze drone'

Smoke is still curling up from the front left tyre of a Russian APC that Ukrainian troops say was destroyed by a "kamikaze drone", and three Russian tanks have been captured more-or-less intact.

One, a T-90A, is seen as a great prize.

The model entered service in 2004 and is the most modern tank fielded by Russian forces in Ukraine. This one wasn't destroyed, but seems to have been left behind after it was crashed in a ditch.

Ukrainian servicemen walk past a destroyed building in Kyrylivka. PHOTO: AFP

Filya's unit is confident they can recover it, fix it and return it - and its relatively advanced thermal imaging sensors - to the fight, along with two more decrepit looking older and abandoned T-72s.

The Russian troops did not only abandon their hardware. One dead or wounded soldier was already on a stretcher when his comrades placed him by the roadside before making their escape. AFP

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.