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Ukrainian family killed in Russian attack, despite denials

September 27, 2022 GMT
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Unidentified graves of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers in a cemetery during an exhumation in the recently retaken area of Izium, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. On Sept. 27, 2022, The Associated Press reported on false claims that Russian forces were not responsible for a March 9 attack that killed a Ukrainian family that is buried at the mass grave in Izium. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
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Unidentified graves of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers in a cemetery during an exhumation in the recently retaken area of Izium, Ukraine, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. On Sept. 27, 2022, The Associated Press reported on false claims that Russian forces were not responsible for a March 9 attack that killed a Ukrainian family that is buried at the mass grave in Izium. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

CLAIM: Grave markers for a Ukrainian family that say they died on March 9 in Izium prove they were not killed by Russian forces, because Russian troops did not enter the Ukrainian city until weeks later.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The Ukrainian city of Izium was being heavily bombarded by Russian forces on March 9 and the family was killed in the attack. Associated Press journalists in Ukraine have spoken with a dozen people with direct knowledge of the attack on the high-rise building where the family lived. Reports from humanitarian groups, Ukrainian media and Ukrainian officials at the time also documented the destruction.

THE FACTS: After Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass grave in Izium this month, social media accounts for the Russian embassy in South Africa openly questioned whether one of the families buried at the site had been truly killed in a Russian offensive on the northeastern city.

On its social media accounts, the embassy shared a screenshot of a tweet by Andrii Yermak, head of the office of the president of Ukraine, featuring a photo of the Stolpakov family’s grave site. The simple wooden crosses, found in a wooded area among scores of others, mark the date of their deaths as March 9, 2022.

“The Russians are killing entire Ukrainian families,” Yermak had tweeted. “Izyum. Olesya, 6 years old. Murdered by the Russian uniformed terrorists. Her parents are buried nearby.” .

The Russian embassy in its posts falsely claimed that the family could not have been killed by Russian troops, because they were not in the area at the time.

But Russian forces did carry out several strikes on Izium on March 9, including one that destroyed a high rise on the east bank of the Severodonetsk River, according to a dozen people with direct knowledge that AP journalists have spoken to in recent days.

A woman who previously lived in the building and whose mother died in the blast told the AP the Stolpakovs lived in the high rise and were among those killed.

Tetiana Pryvalikhina, a 40-year-old who now lives in Kladno in the Czech Republic with her daughter, said in messages on Instagram written in Ukrainian this week that many of the bodies couldn’t be removed until about a month after the attack, making identification difficult.

Izium’s deputy mayor Volodymyr Matsokin told the AP that about 50 people died in the attack including the Stolpakov family. Matsokin was among those who posted numerous photos and videos of the destroyed city on social media during those fraught weeks.

Ukrainian news outlets also reported that the family died in the March 9 attack, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said in a Sept. 17 tweet that they died in an aerial attack on their home that day.

Denis Krivosheev, a deputy director at Amnesty International, called the Russian embassy’s comment “totally disingenuous.” While it’s true that Russian forces did not establish full control of Izium until much later, they were clearly heavily shelling the city at the time the family was killed, he said.

Krivosheev cited a report the humanitarian group published March 16 that said the city of some 45,000 residents had been in a “constant siege-like situation” since Feb. 28.

“The timing totally fits: our respondents were telling us about events at the time including on and close to 9 March,” he said in an email. “I would imagine the family died during one of these attacks.”

George Barros, a Russia expert at the Institute for the Study of War, a D.C.-based group that’s been tracking major developments in the war, agreed, calling the Russian embassy’s claims “reductionist and intentionally misleading.”

“There is ample documentation of Russian indirect fire against civilian infrastructure in Izyum since at least March 3, several days before Russian forces occupied Izyum,” he wrote in an email Monday. “Russian forces therefore very well could have killed civilians in Izyum on March 9 or earlier.”

Email and phone messages left with the Russian Embassy in South Africa, as well as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs press office in Moscow, were not returned last week and again on Monday.

Vitaly Ganchev, the Khariv region’s Russian-installed governor, told Russia’s state-run Tass news agency that Ukrainian, not Russian, forces were responsible for civilian casualties in Izium. Tass also quoted a member of Russia’s parliament, Alexander Malkevich, claiming that Ukrainian troops had abandoned their dead, so Russian forces buried them.

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This story has been updated to include a comment from the deputy mayor of Izium.

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Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Ukraine contributed to this report.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.