Videos suggest captive Russian soldiers were killed at close range

KYIV – A series of videos that surfaced on social media last week has ignited a debate over whether Ukrainian forces committed war crimes or acted in self-defence as they tried to capture a group of Russian soldiers who were then killed.

The videos show the grisly before-and-after scenes of the encounter earlier in November, in which at least 11 Russians, most of whom are seen lying on the ground, appear to have been shot dead at close range after one of their fellow fighters suddenly opened fire on Ukrainian soldiers standing nearby.

The videos, whose authenticity has been verified by The New York Times, offer a rare look into one gruesome moment among many in the war, but do not show how or why the Russian soldiers were killed. Ultimately, they leave a mystery that has been used by both sides in the online battle for hearts and minds.

The videos were first circulated by Ukrainian news and social media channels that used them to laud the military prowess of their armed forces and publicise their heroic retaking of territory lost to Russia early in the war. In Russia, however, the videos prompted a fierce response among hawkish pro-war commentators, who urged the government to seek an international investigation.

Now, Moscow and Kyiv has each accused the other of committing war crimes in the same episode – the Russians accusing Ukraine’s forces of “mercilessly shooting unarmed Russian POWs”, and Ukraine’s commissioner for human rights, Mr Dmytro Lubinets, saying Russian soldiers had opened fire during the act of surrendering.

Russian and Ukrainian forces have both been accused of war crimes since Moscow ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, although the number and scale of reported Russian crimes far exceed those Ukraine is accused of.

The United Nations has said the episode should be investigated.

“We are aware of the videos, and we are looking into them,” Ms Marta Hurtado, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, told Reuters on Friday. “Allegations of summary executions of people hors de combat should be promptly, fully and effectively investigated, and any perpetrators held to account.”

Under international law, the French term “hors de combat” refers to people who are “outside of combat” because of their surrender, being unarmed, unconscious or otherwise unable to defend themselves.

Video diary

The killings occurred as the Ukrainian army recaptured the village of Makiivka, in the Luhansk region, in mid-November, when Russian forces suffered heavy losses.

By comparing the videos to satellite imagery, the Times confirmed that the videos were filmed at a farmhouse in the village.

The first video is set to music – a feature commonly used in social media video diaries – and shows a group of armed Ukrainian soldiers lying in a field as they fire on a target in the distance. The soldiers sound Ukrainian, and speak both Ukrainian and Russian.

Gunshots are heard, and the cameraman shows his face.

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