Screen grab of video allegedly showing separatist leader ordering the execution of two captured Ukrainian officers.
The authenticity of a video that alleges to show the execution of two Ukrainian officers in the restive east of the country is under heavy scrutiny. In the footage, a masked man shoots two men hooded and facing the wall after a separatist leader – identified as Igor Bezler – addresses the camera and gives the order to fire.
The video – which was posted online on Wednesday, June 4 – lasts one minute and 45 seconds. It was reportedly taken in Horlivka, in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are currently in control. The man addressing the camera threatens to shoot more prisoners unless his own men are released by the authorities in Kiev (scroll down for a full transcription of the video in English).
Video posted to Youtube June 4.
The Junta captured my man three days ago. We were negotiating with them about exchanging this person for the Ukrainian army, SBU [Ukraine Security Service] and police officers [that we hold]. Three days, the Ukrainian junta refused to exchange the person it captured for the Ukrainian officers. I hold in captivity three colonels, one of them an SBU colonel, and three lieutenant-colonels. At the moments all agreements with the Ukrainian government have been broken. I waited for three days but I don't have time to wait any longer. So now we will shoot Mr. Budik and Mr. Vasyuschchenko. For Mr. Turchinov [Ukraine’s interim president], Parubiy [Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine] and others of their ilk - if my man is not released within one hour, I'll shoot another two. After another one and a half hour - another two. And so on, until 8 [Ukrainians] are shot. If the Ukrainian army and the state don't need these officers, I need them even less. Load! Aim! Fire!
At 1:25 in the video, the two prisoners – tied and facing the wall – fall to the floor after shots ring out. According to a weapons expert contacted by FRANCE 24, the ‘executioner’ appears to be holding what is likely to be an AK 74 weapon – an arm common in both the Ukrainian and Russian military, and among separatists. A magazine can also be seen attached to one of the weapons, and the sound of it being loaded can be heard before it is fired.
None of this proves that the executions are real, however. As our expert – among others - points out, the lack of a bright muzzle flash has lead many to suggest that the incident may have been staged [though it’s possible the camera wasn’t sensitive enough to pick up bright muzzle flashes]. Perhaps unusually, the faces of the two prisoners are never revealed: the cameraman keeps his distance, making it impossible to determine their true identity nor the extent of any injuries.
Internet users have also suggested that the manner in which the two men fall to the ground could prove that the execution was faked. According to Ann Kiernan - a ballistics expert contacted by FRANCE 24 - the noise indicates that the weapon was fired in automatic ‘burst’ mode, which is far less accurate than single fire mode. This means it’s unlikely the shooter would have hit his targets so precisely. Yet the two prisoners fall straight away, as if neatly shot in the head. She adds that both man fall far too quickly –almost at the same time as the burst of fire – and, unusually, lie still after the shooting.
What’s likely, however, is that the man featured in the video is separatist leader Igor Bezler. This shadowy figure – who the Ukrainian government claims worked in the past for the Russian military - has already featured heavily in news reports and articles on the unrest tearing eastern Ukraine apart. He reportedly goes by his nom de guerre ‘bes’ – or ‘devil’ in English. He has also been linked to an attack that killed 16 Ukrainian soldiers in May.
The video below - posted in April - appears to show Bezler addressing separatists. Though he lacks a moustache, here Bezler bears a close physical resemblance to the man shown in the purported execution video. Other photos posted online reveal an even closer match between the two.
Video posted to Youtube showing Igor Bezler instructing separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In response to the video, acting Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov released a statement on Thursday. He accused Bezler of being a Russian-born “criminal” and vowed to capture and punish him. He added that Ukraine would never negotiate with “terrorists and murderers.” But Kiev has neither confirmed nor denied whether or not the two men named in the video are indeed dead.
The video could be footage of an earlier incident reported by Ukrainian media, in which Bezler carried out a staged execution of two officers in the basement of his headquarters on May 27. The two, named as Roman Babyuk and Dmitry Krikunov, were reportedly later released. Yet the names of the two men allegedly executed in the video – Budik and Vasyuschenko – do not correspond to those mentioned in earlier reports.
The question of the video’s authenticity is far from being settled. But real or not, the fact that gunmen have resorted to filming an apparent execution marks a turning point. Scenes that were familiar to the world from wars in Iraq and now in Syria are threatening to become part of a conflict raging on the fringes of Europe. The footage could succeed in terrifying a civilian population already caught up in the vortex of bloody infighting.
This article was written by FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).