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Zelensky says 31,000 soldiers killed in first official death toll

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday said 31,000 soldiers defending the country from Russia’s invasion have been killed, in what is the country’s first official figure for military casualties in more than two years of fighting.

“I don’t want to mention the number of wounded,” Zelensky said at a press conference.

US and Russian officials had previously said between 100,000 and 300,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in the conflict, figures which Zelensky dismissed as “nonsense.”

The Ukrainian leader meanwhile put Russian losses at 180,000 dead and 500,000 wounded.

This is the first time that one of the warring parties has released its own official casualty figures. The veracity of the toll cannot be officially verified.

The Russian casualty figures cited by Zelensky are significantly higher than the daily updated toll by the Ukrainian armed forces, which on Sunday put the total number of Russian losses at 409,820 dead and wounded combined.

Zelensky declined to comment on the casualties among the Ukrainian population and said such figures are not currently known.

Exact casualties among military personnel have so far been kept strictly secret by both sides. US estimates from mid-2023 put the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at around 70,000 and the number of Russian soldiers killed at 120,000.

In mid-February, the US Department of Defense estimated the number of Russian soldiers killed or wounded at 315,000.

Ukrainian prosecutors meanwhile say they have recorded more than 120,000 instances of war crimes committed by Russian troops since the invasion started in February 2022.

“There is no crime that the Russians have not committed during this war,” Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin told journalists at the Ukraine 2024 forum in Kiev, noting that investigations had already led to 80 convictions in Ukrainian courts.

Ukraine is aiming for tribunals modelled on the Nuremberg trials held after World War II at which Nazi war criminals were tried. Kostin cited the example of crimes committed in the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which fell to Russian forces in May 2022.

On Sunday, fresh allegations emerged of Russian troops shooting seven Ukrainian prisoners of war, according to official reports from Kiev.

The execution took place on Saturday near the Russian-captured city of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donbass, Ukrainian human rights commissioner Dmytro Lubinets said on Telegram on Sunday evening.

Lubinez referred to a video recording showing Ukrainian soldiers “with their hands up” as they surrendered.

“The Russians were supposed to take them prisoner, but instead shot them mercilessly,” he said. The information from Kiev could not initially be independently verified.

“Such an execution is a war crime,” Lubinets continued. This case must be registered as a further violation of international humanitarian law by Russia, he said.

Lubinets wanted to officially appeal to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross immediately. He accused the Russian armed forces of “not caring” about the Geneva Conventions or the customs and rules of war.

Just a few days ago, Russian soldiers were accused of executing at least six wounded Ukrainian soldiers who could not be evacuated in time during the capture of Avdiivka, a town in Donetsk that had been fiercely contested. Kiev also referred to video footage from a drone in this case.

This allegation could not be independently verified either. Russian forces have regularly been accused of executing unarmed Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Ukraine says the situation on the battlefield is being impacted by the late arrival of half of military aid from Western allies.

“Fifty percent of what has been promised does not arrive on time,” Defence Minister Rustem Umerov told journalists in Kiev, as Ukraine entered its third year of fending off a Russian invasion with Western support.

According to Umerov, Kiev’s defence campaign continues to be hampered by the lack of air superiority. Ukrainian pilots are currently undergoing training on Western F-16 fighter jets, which are due to arrive in Ukraine in the first half of the year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during 'Ukraine. Year 2024' conference, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine. -/Ukrainian Presidency/dpa

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during ‘Ukraine. Year 2024’ conference, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine. -/Ukrainian Presidency/dpa

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