Bodies of Ukrainian troops 'dumped as if they were dogs in ditch'

Rows of crosses lined the woodland, enveloped by the unmistakable smell of death.

Each makeshift wooden marker jutted out of a mound of earth where a body was buried.

Some displayed the names of the deceased, but the majority just bore numbers because the identity was unknown.

Police investigators and forensic experts have started the difficult process of exhuming the remains at this mass burial site on the edge of the newly-liberated city of Izyum.

They said it contained more than 440 men, women and children, all civilians, as well as a mass grave that held at least 17 Ukrainian soldiers.

The discovery was only possible after Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops out of Izyum last week, allowing the police to move in.

Dressed in light blue, plastic overalls and armed with shovels, one team was tasked with digging up the dead.

They took it in turn to work on one of the rows of shallow graves, carefully removing the sandy earth so each body could be retrieved.

The dead appeared to have been dumped without even the dignity of a coffin.

The cause of each death will take time to document, but officials said they believed some of the victims were killed in Russian artillery and airstrikes during the past almost seven months of war.

They said others were shot dead.

There is also a suspicion of torture.

A top prosecutor said the first body to be recovered had a rope around his neck and showed signs of having suffered a "violent death".

"I have worked at the prosecutor's office for 20 years, and this is the first time in my life I have ever seen anything like this," said Oleksandr Filchakov, as he visited the woodland crime scene, located next to an actual cemetery.

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Journalists were also granted access on Friday.

Several bodies could be seen, either as they were being retrieved from the earth or as they lay in body bags.

Serhii Bolvinov, the top police investigator for the Kharkiv region, said that local grave diggers had buried the bodies during the Russian occupation.

Where the identity of a victim was not known, it was recorded in a book along with any specific details about the person, such as gender, he said.

Investigators now have the record book, which details all of the people buried at the site.

The chief investigator said the total number was now believed to be 445.

In addition, at least 17 Ukrainian soldiers were buried in a single mass grave also at the site, according to the police.

"This is terrible," Mr Bolvinov said, surveying the civilian mass burial site.

"It is very painful for us… This place only appeared because of the (Russian) aggressor…. I am lost for words."

Once brought out of the ground, civilian bodies were placed in black body bags, while soldiers were put into white ones.

They will be driven away for a post-mortem to establish the cause of death.

DNA samples will also be taken to enable investigators to check identities and to work out who are in the anonymous graves - an enormous task.

The chief prosecutor said the work would be done as quickly as possible but he stressed it was a process that could not be rushed because of the need to be thorough and forensic.

Asked whether international prosecutors were also involved given the sheer scale of the challenge, he said: "Of course, our international partners are helping us.

"They are involved with our groups. They are now working in Izyum."

The burial site was also a Russian military position, with holes dug into the earth to hold tanks and other weapons. There also looked to be a fortified trench for troops.

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Across the road from the site was a row of houses.

One resident who lived through the occupation said local people had been forbidden from entering the woodland area.

Serhii Cherniak, 61, said this changed when the Russian tanks and artillery moved further back - though still during the occupation.

He said he ventured in to collect some wood and saw the mass grave for Ukrainian soldiers.

He was damning of the local grave diggers.

"They didn't even cover them (the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers) with sacks," he said.

"They were just dumped as if they were dogs. It's not even a grave, it was a ditch the Russians had used to park one of their vehicles. They came up, threw them down, and sprinkled (the sand)."