Zelensky accuses Russia of plotting cover-up of ‘crimes’ in occupied territory

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Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that Russians were planning to “hide their guilt” over further atrocities in the territories of Ukraine that remain under Moscow’s control, after its troops retreating from Kyiv’s suburbs in recent days left behind the corpses of hundreds of civilians.

The remarks by Ukraine’s president on Tuesday came as the US Treasury announced new steps to make it more difficult for Russia to make debt payments in dollars through American banks, bringing Moscow a step closer to a potential default on its obligations to international investors.

Zelensky toured the town of Bucha and other suburbs of Kyiv with foreign journalists on Monday as investigators began to gather evidence of what Ukrainian officials have called “war crimes” committed by Russian troops before they withdrew.

After world leaders condemned the apparent mass killings and several EU countries expelled Russian diplomats in response, Zelensky said he expected the occupying forces might “deal differently with their crimes” in the Ukrainian territories that remained under their control in the east and south of the country.

“They are already carrying out an active campaign to hide their guilt of mass murders of civilians in Mariupol,” Zelensky said in a video address. “They will do dozens of staged interviews, re-edited recordings, will purposely kill people in a way to make it look like someone else killed them.”

Zelensky added that he expected the Russians to “clean up the evidence of their crimes”.

Russia has denied that any civilians were harmed during its occupation of Bucha. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said reports of the killings were a “fake attack” after his department accused Ukraine’s government of staging a “hoax” for western media.

Ukrainian troops and journalists who entered Bucha and other towns near Kyiv that were captured by the Russians found the bodies of dead civilians lying in the streets and freshly dug graves. Russia has withdrawn most of its troops from the capital region and northern Ukraine in recent days as it has shifted its focus to seizing territory in the country’s east.

The “Russian enemy is regrouping troops and focusing efforts on preparing for an aggressive operation in the east of our country”, Ukraine’s armed forces general staff said. “The goal is to establish full control over the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said he had spoken to UN secretary-general António Guterres and urged him to make use of mechanisms “to collect evidence and hold Russian war criminals to account”. Zelensky is expected to address the UN Security Council later on Tuesday.

After news and images of the killings emerged on the weekend, western governments ratcheted up calls for tougher sanctions against Russia.

French president Emmanuel Macron backed a ban on Russian coal and oil sales on Monday, while the European Commission said such a move was “definitely an option”.

Valdis Dombrovskis, commission executive vice-president, added that it would be necessary to reach a consensus among EU member states after Germany and Austria warned against a sudden decision to cut off imports.

“There are discussions on what can be done in the area of energy, like coal and oil,” Dombrovskis said as he arrived at a meeting of finance ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday. “What is important in this situation is that we are coming forward with a strong and credible sanctions package.”

US president Joe Biden labelled Russian leader Vladimir Putin “brutal” in his first comments following the alleged atrocities in Bucha, saying what happened in the town was “outrageous”. He also vowed to step up sanctions.

The US Treasury said it would no longer permit dollar payments to be made from Russian government accounts at US financial institutions. “Russia must choose between draining remaining valuable dollar reserves or new revenue coming in, or default,” a US Treasury spokesperson said.

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