By Andrei Makhovsky
MINSK (Reuters) - More than 20 bodies of victims shot in the 1940s, almost certainly by the Soviet NKVD secret police, have been found in a church in the north of Belarus, historians in the ex-Soviet state said on Thursday.
Yaroslav Bernyakovich, a local history enthusiast, said a youth group came across the bodies while exploring disused parts of a church in Glubokoye. The town was part of Poland between the World Wars but reverted to Soviet Belarus after Nazi and Soviet leaders divided up eastern European states in 1939.
"While conducting a dig in the church, the group came upon a bricked-up cellar and discovered 21 bodies of people who had been shot," Bernyakovich told Reuters by telephone. "They stopped work because of the strong smell of the corpses."
He said the dead included two adolescents and possibly a number of women. Found alongside the bodies were cartridge cases from pistols and rifles commonly used by dictator Josef Stalin's NKVD police.
Other historians agreed the victims had been shot by the NKVD rather than by the German forces which swept through Belarus when they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
"I think we can all but rule out any suggestion that these people were shot by the Germans during the occupation," said historian Igor Kuznetsov.
"First, there are the cartridge cases from Soviet weapons. Second, the Germans carried out public executions and these people were killed in secret, in a manner typical of the NKVD."
An official from the regional prosecutor's office said authorities would carry out an investigation.
A Polish diplomat in Minsk, Pawel Marczuk, said his government would also seek further details. "It is likely these are Poles from western Belarus executed by the NKVD," he said.
Historian Oleg Yov said there was documentary evidence the victims were political detainees at a local prison who were shot by the NKVD within days of Germans forces pushing into Soviet territory on June 22, 1941.
"There were prisons in every regional town and inmates were shot as the Germans invaded," he said.
"The NKVD had to get rid of politically unreliable people. There was no time to move them so they were shot according to lists held by the prison director."
In the most infamous wartime massacre of Poles, thousands of officers captured after the 1939 German invasion of Poland were killed a year later in western Russia by the NKVD. Kremlin chief Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet responsibility only in 1990.
The largest mass execution site in Belarus is the Kuropaty woods outside Minsk, where some 30,000 people are believed to have been killed by the NKVD from 1937 to 1941 at the height of Stalin's terror and buried in some 500 graves.