Ukrainian village leader and family found buried in shallow grave

By Marko Djurica

MOTYZHYN, Ukraine (Reuters) -The head of the village of Motyzhyn, her husband and son were shot and buried in a shallow grave, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior ministry said on Monday, showing their partially covered bodies in the sand.

Since Russian troops withdrew from towns and villages around the Ukrainian capital Kyiv last week, Ukrainian troops have been moving in, showing journalists corpses of what they say are civilians killed by Russian forces, destroyed houses and burnt-out cars.

Reuters could not independently verify who killed the family in the grave just outside Motyzhyn, about 45 km (28 miles) west of Kyiv. Moscow has denied targeting civilians and has said similar reports of killings were "staged" to sully Russia's name.

"There have been Russian occupiers here. They tortured and murdered the whole family of the village head," said Anton Herashchenko, naming those killed as Olha Sukhenko, her husband Ihor Sukhenko and their 25-year old son, Oleksandr.

"The occupiers suspected they were collaborating with our military, giving us locations of where to target our artillery. These scum tortured, slaughtered and killed the whole family. They will be responsible for this."

A Reuters reporter saw the bodies in a forest near a farm, which had been all but destroyed, just outside the village of Motyzhyn. Nearby a burnt-out tractor could be seen and one of those buried in the sand had his head taped.

The reporter also saw another body of a man in a well near to the burnt-out farm, where black scorch marks climbed up its few remaining walls. He appeared to have been tied up.

Daria Belenitsyna, who identified herself as Oleksandr Sukhenko's girlfriend, told Reuters the family had been taken captive by Russian forces on March 23.

She said Russian soldiers had first searched the house that morning, taking Oleksandr's car and a phone away. Oleksandr - known as Sasha - had called to reassure her, she said.

"I urged them to leave immediately. But Sasha said, 'it's okay, don't worry'," she said.

The soldiers came back a few hours later, blindfolded Olha Sukhenko and her husband, and took them away, Belenitsyna said. Then they came a third time to take Oleksandr, she said, citing his sister Lena and the family's neighbours.

She said at first relatives thought the Sukhenko family might be part of a prisoners' exchange, but then found out they were dead.

Ihor, who did not give his surname and said he was a relative of the Sukhenkos, said: "Over there, in the hole, my family lies. I don't know what they were killed for. They were peaceful, kind people."

Vadym Tokar, head of the Makariv village council which neighbours Motyzhyn, said the bodies had been left where they were found.

"We can't get them out because there is a suspicion that they are mined," he said by telephone.

Global outrage spread on Monday over civilian deaths in Ukraine, including evidence of bound bodies shot at close range and a mass grave found in Bucha, another town near Kyiv, after it was retaken from Russian troops.

The Kremlin said on Monday it categorically denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians in Bucha.

"This information must be seriously questioned," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters. "From what we have seen, our experts have identified signs of video falsification and other fakes."

Russia denies targeting civilians since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it calls a "special military operation" aimed at demilitarising and "denazifying" Ukraine. Ukraine says it was invaded without provocation.

(Reporting by Marko Djurica, additional reporting and writing by Elizabeth Piper and Silvia Aloisi in Lviv; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Rosalba O'Brien)