Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Thursday defended his country`s award of a top honor to a man accused of murdering thousands of Jews during World War II, according to Associated Press.
Controversy over the award cast a shadow over a visit that otherwise was devoted to improving relations between Ukraine and Israel. Yushchenko spoke out against anti-Semitism several times, especially during a speech in parliament.
At a foreign policy forum in Jerusalem, Yushchenko said Ukrainian nationalist leader Roman Shukhevych was posthumously named a Hero of Ukraine last month for his role in fighting for Ukraine`s independence.
Holocaust researchers and Jewish groups have charged that a force under the command of Shukhevych took part in pogroms in 1941 in which 4,000 Jews were killed.
Yushchenko had this reply: "I have materials, documents, saying that in the course of grander context of Ukrainian rebellion, Shukhevych signed a petition that prohibited massive persecutions (of civilians)." He said no Ukrainian nationalist movement targeted Jews.
During his three-day visit, Yushchenko repeatedly said he regretted the massacre of 1.4 million Jews in Nazi-occupied Ukraine and that he would work to preserve their memory.
Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.
On Wednesday, Yushchenko presented Israeli President Shimon Peres with documents from Soviet KGB archives detailing the locations of mass graves from the Holocaust in Ukraine—many of them unknown up to now, Israeli officials said.
And on a visit to Israel`s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, Yushchenko donated soil and a rock from the site of the Babi Yar massacre, where 33,711 Jews were rounded up and executed at the edge of a ravine in Kiev in 1941.
Despite the gestures of goodwill and a promise to memorialize Ukrainian Holocaust sites and preserve Jewish cultural sites, Yushchenko was dogged during his visit by criticism of Shukhevych.
At Yad Vashem, a museum official confronted Yushchenko, saying he has documents implicating Shukhevych as the leader of squads who massacred thousands of Jews.
"Sometimes you can be both a hero of Ukrainians and a murderer of Jews," said Joseph Lapid, a former Israeli justice minister and a Holocaust survivor from the former Yugoslavia.