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Video shows death on the streets of Ukraine town at heart of new Russian offensive

WorldVideo shows death on the streets of Ukraine town at heart of new Russian offensive

Bodies lie in the pockmarked streets, smoke billows from the ruins of homes, fences sit flattened: A new video offers a rare view inside a front-line city that has taken on the brunt of the fighting as Russia presses on with its offensive in northern Ukraine.

Ukrainian authorities have reported that the town of Vovchansk, with a pre-war population of around 17,000, has been devastated since Moscow’s troops swept across the border and opened a new front in the Kharkiv region earlier this month. Located just three miles from the Russian border, the town has become the focal point of the offensive, and has seen intense street fighting and shelling that Kyiv says has left Russian forces “bogged down.”

Most of its residents have either left or been evacuated into areas farther from the fighting, including Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.

But images and accounts have emerged in recent days that paint a picture of the toll taken on this border town by the Kremlin’s new assault.

Drone footage of Vovchansk published on Instagram on Wednesday by Ukrainian freelance videographer Kostya Liberov appears to show several bodies in civilian clothes lying in the streets of the town. The footage, shot from above, does not provide much detail on the state of the bodies or any visible injuries, but one frame appears to show bodies of two people lying face down on the ground between a road and the ruins of residential homes. About 10 feet to their left is a small white crater and an impact zone where the grass looks like it has been blown away by an explosion.

A fuller version of Liberov’s video published by the Getty news agency also appears to show bodies in soldier uniforms lying in the streets.

NBC News has not been able to geolocate exactly where the bodies are in the Instagram video that Liberov shared, but the images of smoldering buildings that follow in the video can be geolocated to central Vovchansk. Liberov told NBC News that the footage was shot over an area of the town where street fighting has taken place. NBC News could not verify if the people in the video are, in fact, civilians or how they died.

Civilians being evacuated from the war torn city of Vovchansk, Ukraine on May 20, 2024.
A young woman gets emotional after being evacuated from war-torn Vovchansk on Monday. Narciso Contreras / Anadolu via Getty Images

On May 16, Ukraine’s interior minister Ihor Klymenko said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that he had information about “first executions of civilians by the Russian military” in Vovchansk. One resident, Klymenko said, was killed after he refused to obey Russian commands and tried to escape on foot. Kharkiv region Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said this week that about 100 people remain in Vovchansk and that they have effectively been taken hostage by the Russians, who are not letting them evacuate. NBC News could not independently verify either official’s claims.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office also released a statement  Tuesday detailing a case it’s investigating of two civilians allegedly being shot in Vovchansk. It shared an image of an elderly woman wearing a bright red jacket who appears slumped in a wheelchair. A video of her husband, 70, was also released in which he said he, his wife and another resident were shot at from a nearby building as they were trying to escape the town toward Kharkiv on May 15. He was the only survivor, and was eventually helped by the Ukrainian forces in the area and taken to Kharkiv, according to the statement. NBC News could not verify the details of what happened.

The Prosecutor General’s Office said the case was being investigated as a violation of the laws and customs of war.

There has been no immediate official reaction from Russia to any of the Ukrainian claims about civilians in Vovchansk or the bodies appearing in Liberov’s drone video of the town. NBC News has reached out to Russia’s defense ministry for comment.

Meanwhile, active fighting continues in the city.

On Wednesday, in his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked several army brigades for defending the Vovchansk district and Kharkiv region in general. His top commander, Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, said Thursday that “the enemy was completely bogged down in street battles for Vovchansk” after first “minor successes” in Russia’s new offensive. Also Thursday, Russia’s defense ministry said it was deflecting Ukrainian counterattacks in Vovchansk, and on Friday, Russia state news agency Tass quoted lawmaker Viktor Vodolatsky as saying that more than half of Volchansk was under Russian control.

With active fighting ongoing, NBC News could not verify either side’s battlefield reports.

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