Volodymyr Zelenskiy has denounced as a war crime the attack on a prison that killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russian-occupied Donetsk, with both sides blaming each other for the deaths.
In an address Friday evening, the Ukrainian president said that more than 50 people died in the The assault is Olenivkacalling it a “deliberate Russian war crime, a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian POWs”.
The captured fighters – which the Russian Defense Ministry said included members of the Azov Battalion, which was defending the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol – should have been protected by guarantees guaranteed by the The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Zelenskiy, who joined his foreign minister in urging those organizations to step in and investigate.
Olenivka is about 10 km south of occupied Donetsk and close to the front line. Establishing liability may be very difficult without independent access to the site.
The Red Cross said it had requested access to determine the health and condition of people who were in the prison at the time of the attack. “Our priority right now is to ensure that the injured receive life-saving care and that the bodies of those who lost their lives are treated with dignity,” he said in a statement. statement.
Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general, said at a press briefing on Friday that he did not yet have first-hand information on the attack and that “the question of the access is also a difficult point”. “We strongly encourage…all parties on the ground to fully investigate what happened,” he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said 40 prisoners were killed and 75 injured in the prison attack, but accused Ukrainian forces of hitting the prison with US-made Himars rockets.
Moscow describes the Azov Battalion, a former paramilitary unit with previous ties to far-right groups, as a neo-Nazi organization.
Ukraine’s defense forces denied responsibility for the attack and said Russian artillery had targeted the prison to hide the fact that the men held there had been “tortured and murdered”. The country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said earlier that Russia had committed a “barbaric war crime”.
Ukraine’s military intelligence said the strike was a “deliberate act of terrorism” and the internal security agency, the SBU, said it intercepted phone calls indicating Russia was responsible. Ukraine’s Attorney General Andriy Kostin said he had opened a war crimes investigation into the blast.
There was no way to immediately verify either version of events.
Footage shown on Russian television believed to be from the prison scene showed servicemen examining a building with a hole in the roof, tangled metal in bunk beds and streaks of blood among personal effects. Other images showed charred bodies and dismembered limbs.
Russian media later released images of what they said were fragments of a US Himars rocket being gathered together and placed on what appeared to be a bench rather than in place.
The SBU claimed to have intercepted telephone calls “in which the occupiers confirm that Russian troops are responsible for this tragedy”. Intercepted conversations indicated that the Russians may have planted explosives in the prison, the agency said in a statement. “In particular, none of the eyewitnesses heard a missile flying towards the correctional institution. There was no characteristic hissing sound, and the explosions occurred on their own.
Additionally, online video footage showed that windows remained intact in some rooms at the facility, according to the SBU. This “indicates that the epicenter of the explosion was inside the destroyed building and that its walls were hit by the shock waves, shielding some of the neighboring rooms”.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak called for a “strict investigation” into the attack and urged the UN and other international organizations to condemn it. He said the Russians transferred Ukrainian prisoners to the barracks just days before the strike, suggesting it was planned. The Russian allegations, he said, were “a classic, cynical and elaborate false flag operation” designed to discredit Ukrainian authorities.
The Azov Regiment and other Ukrainian units defended the Azovstal Steelworks for nearly three months, clinging to its underground maze of tunnels. They surrendered in May under relentless Russian attacks from land, sea and air.
Dozens of Ukrainian soldiers have been taken to prisons in Russian-controlled areas such as Donetsk, an area in eastern Ukraine ruled by Russian-backed separatist authorities.
Some have returned to Ukraine as part of prisoner exchanges with Russia, but the families of others do not know if their loved ones are alive or if they will ever return home.
Friday’s attack raises serious questions about where the prisoners were being held, under what circumstances and why they weren’t moved to a safer place.
It also raises questions about the status of those killed. Under the Geneva Conventions, registered POWs would not be tried for lawfully participating in a conflict.