Russia and Ukraine swap responsibility for deadly attack on POW prison

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia and Ukraine accused each other on Friday of bombing a prison in a breakaway region of eastern Ukraine, an attack that reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war captured after the fall of Mariupolthe city where troops withstood a months-long Russian siege.

Both sides said the attack was premeditated to cover up atrocities.

Russia has claimed that the Ukrainian military used US-supplied rocket launchers to strike the prison in Olenivka, a settlement controlled by the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic. Separatist authorities and Russian officials said the attack killed 53 Ukrainian POWs and injured 75 others.

Moscow has opened an investigation into the attack, sending a team from the Russian Investigative Committee, the country’s main criminal investigation agency, to the site. State agency RIA Novosti reported that precision rocket fragments from the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System had been found at the site.

The Ukrainian military denied firing rockets or artillery at Olenivka and accused the Russians of shelling the prison to cover up allegations of torture and execution of Ukrainians there. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the bombing as “a deliberate, cynical and calculated mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners”.

Neither claim could be independently verified.

Video shot by The Associated Press showed charred and twisted bed frames in the destroyed barracks, as well as burned bodies and sheet metal hanging from the destroyed roof. The footage also included bodies lined up on the ground next to a barbed wire fence and a set of what were claimed to be metal rocket fragments on a wooden bench.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the internationally unrecognized republic of Donetsk, said the prison held 193 inmates. He did not specify how many were Ukrainian POWs.

The deputy commander of the separatist forces in Donetsk, Eduard Basurin, suggested that Ukraine decided to strike the prison to prevent the captives from revealing key military information.

Ukraine “knew exactly where they were being held and in what location”, he said. “After Ukrainian prisoners of war started talking about the crimes they committed and the orders they received from Kyiv, a decision was made by the political leadership of Ukraine: strike here.”

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Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak called for a “strict investigation” into the attack and urged the United Nations 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 goal – to discredit Ukraine in front of our partners and disrupt arms supply,” he tweeted.

Ukrainian officials claimed that the Russian Wagner Group, mercenaries that Russia has used in other armed conflicts and apparently elsewhere in Ukraine, carried out the assault.

Ukrainian security agencies released a statement citing evidence that Russia was responsible, including the transfer of prisoners, analysis of injuries and shock wave, intercepted phone conversations and lack of shelling at the site .

“All this leaves no doubt: the explosion in Olenivka was a Russian terrorist act and a flagrant violation of international agreements,” the statement said.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov, described the strike as a “bloody provocation” aimed at discouraging Ukrainian soldiers from surrendering. He also claimed that US-supplied HIMARS rockets were used and said eight guardsmen were among the injured.

Ukrainian forces are fighting to keep the remaining territory under their control in Donetsk. Together with the neighboring province of Luhansk, they constitute the Ukrainian industrial region of Donbass, mainly Russian-speaking.

For several months, Moscow has focused on trying to seize parts of Donbass that are not yet held by the separatists.

Holding POWs in an active combat zone appeared to defy the Geneva Convention, which requires prisoners to be evacuated as soon as possible after capture to camps away from combat zones.

Ukrainian prisoners of war in the Donetsk prison included troops captured during the fall of Mariupol. They spent months locked up with civilians in a giant steelworks in the southern port city. Their resistance to relentless Russian bombardment became a symbol of Ukrainian defiance against Russian aggression.

More than 2,400 soldiers from the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard and other military units gave up their fight and surrendered under the orders of the Ukrainian army in May.

Dozens of Ukrainian soldiers were taken to prisons located in areas controlled by Russia. Some returned to Ukraine as part of prisoner exchanges with Russia, but the families of other POWs do not know if their loved ones are still alive or if they will ever return home.

In other developments Friday:

— US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoken by phone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the highest-level contact between the two sides since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Blinken urged Russia to agree to a deal to secure the release of US detainees Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

– Ukraine’s president visited one of the country’s main Black Sea ports a week after an agreement was reached to create safe corridors for grain shipments trapped in the country since the beginning of the war. Workers were seen preparing terminals for grain exports, which millions of poor people around the world rely on. Zelenskyy said the shipments would begin with the departure of several ships that were already loaded but could not leave when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

– Ukraine’s presidential office says at least 13 civilians have been killed and 36 injured in Russian shelling over the past 24 hours. In the southern city of Mykolaiv, at least four people were killed and seven others injured when Russian shelling hit a bus stop. The Russian barrage also hit a facility that was distributing humanitarian aid where three people were injured, officials said. Ukrainian officials also said at least four civilians were killed and five injured in the eastern town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region.

— A Kyiv appeals court on Friday reduced to 15 years the life sentence of a Russian soldier convicted in the first war crimes trial since Russia invaded Ukraine. Critics had said the sentencing of 21-year-old Vadim Shishimarin was excessively harsh given that he had confessed to the crime and expressed remorse. He pleaded guilty to killing a civilian and was convicted in May. His lawyer argued that Shishimarin shot a Ukrainian on orders from his superiors.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war on https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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