MINSK - Remains of dozens of suspected Second World War victims were unearthed in Belarus's northeastern Vitebsk region, residents and experts told AFP Wednesday.
Young Christian Orthodox activists were cleaning the basement of the Nativity Cathedral in the village of Glubokoye when they found human remains immured underneath a stair.
"There are dozens of skeletons, so the youngsters stopped digging and called the police," resident Yaroslav Bernikovich said, adding that youths found 21 skulls, including those of children, scraps of clothing, a cigarette pack produced in Warsaw and numerous rifle bullets.
Locals admitted they had never heard of mass executions in the church, which remained active throughout the Soviet era and German occupation, but "the church is next to the building used by police in Polish, German and Soviet times," Bernikovich said.
"It is obvious that whole families were executed there, but who they were is unknown," he added.
Village prosecutors were investigating the find, the local newspaper's editor Vladimir Skrabatun told AFP, suggesting that "these people could have been victims of events in 1939, when the Soviets took over Glubokoye" which had originally been part of Poland's territory.
"The authorities now want to blame the Nazis for the remains. But Germans did not conceal their executions, they had never done that, so this is certainly NKVD's handiwork, especially since the bullets are Soviet," historian Igor Kuznetsov said, in reference to the Soviet security service.
"The executions were held in 1939-1941. It could have been locals, or Polish army prisoners, whose mass executions began in winter 1940, or Glubokoye jail's inmates, who were executed as the Nazi army advanced, we have archive proof of that," Kuznetsov explained.
However, remains would have to be exhumed for identification, he added.
An estimated 22,000 Polish army officers were executed in 1940 by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's secret police in Katyn, a forest in Russia's Smolensk region bordering Belarus's Vitebsk. For decades, the Soviet Union claimed the massacre had been carried out by Nazi troops.