Russia, Ukraine trade blame for shelling at PoW prison that killed dozens
Both sides say assault was premeditated with the aim of covering up atrocities
Russia and Ukraine accused each other Friday of shelling a prison in a separatist region of Eastern Ukraine, an attack that reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war captured after the fall of Mariupol, the city where troops famously held out against a months-long Russian siege.
Both sides said the assault was premeditated with the aim of covering up atrocities.
Russia claimed that Ukraine used U.S.-supplied HIMARS multiple rocket launchers in the attack on the prison in Olenivka, in the Russian-controlled Donetsk region. Officials from Russia and the separatist authorities in Donetsk said the attack killed 53 Ukrainian PoWs and wounded 75.
Moscow opened a probe into the attack, sending a team to the site from Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's main criminal investigation agency. The state RIA Novosti agency reported that fragments of U.S.-supplied precision High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rockets were found at the site.
The Ukrainian military denied making any rocket or artillery strikes in Olenivka. It accused the Russians of shelling the prison to cover up the alleged torture and execution of Ukrainians there. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the shelling as "a deliberate, cynical, calculated mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners."
Neither claim could be independently verified.
Video shot by The Associated Press showed charred, twisted bed frames in the wrecked barracks, as well as burned bodies and metal sheets hanging from the destroyed roof. The footage also included bodies lined up on the ground next to a barbed-wire fence and an array of what was claimed to be metal rocket fragments on a wooden bench.
Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-backed separatist leader, said the prison has 193 inmates. He didn't specify how many of them were Ukrainian PoWs.
The deputy commander of the Donetsk separatist forces, Eduard Basurin, suggested that Ukraine decided to strike the prison to prevent captives from revealing key military information.
Ukraine "knew exactly where they were being held and in what place," he said. "After the Ukrainian prisoners of war began to talk about the crimes they committed, and orders they received from Kyiv, a decision was made by the political leadership of Ukraine: carry out a strike here."
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 had transferred some Ukrainian prisoners to the barracks just a few days before the strike, suggesting that it was planned.
"The purpose — to discredit Ukraine in front of our partners and disrupt weapons supply," he tweeted.
Ukraine's security agency, the SBU, said it had intercepted phone calls "in which the occupiers confirm that Russian troops are to blame for this tragedy."
The intercepted conversations indicate that the Russians may have placed explosives in the prison, the agency said in a statement. "In particular, none of the eyewitnesses heard any missile flying towards the correctional facility. There was no characteristic whistling, and the explosions occurred on their own."
In addition, online video footage showed that the windows remained whole in some rooms of the facility, according to the SBU. That "indicates that the epicentre of the explosion was inside the destroyed building, and its walls took the hit from the blast waves, protecting some of the neighbouring rooms."
A Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson, Lt.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov, described the strike as a "bloody provocation" aimed at discouraging Ukrainian soldiers from surrendering. He too claimed that U.S.-supplied HIMARS rockets were used, and said eight guards were among the wounded.
Mariupol troops among PoWs
Ukrainian forces are fighting to hold on to the remaining territory under their control in Donetsk. Together with the neighbouring Luhansk province, they make up Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking industrial Donbas region.
For several months, Moscow has focused on trying to seize parts of the Donbas not already held by the separatists.
Holding PoWs in an area with active fighting appeared to defy the Geneva Convention, which requires that prisoners be relocated as soon as possible after capture to camps away from combat zones.
The Ukrainian PoWs at the Donetsk prison included troops captured during the fall of Mariupol. They spent months holed up with civilians at a giant steel mill in the southern port city. Their resistance during a relentless Russian bombardment became a symbol of Ukrainian defiance against Russia's aggression.
More than 2,400 soldiers from the Azov Regiment — far-right armed group that was folded into Ukraine's National Guard after Russia's first invasion in 2014 — and other military units gave up their fight and surrendered under orders from Ukraine's military in May.
Scores of Ukrainian soldiers have been taken to prisons in Russian-controlled areas. Some have returned to Ukraine as part of prisoner exchanges with Russia, but the families of other PoWs have no idea whether their loved ones are still alive, or if they will ever come home.
Marianna Danieka, 28, last spoke to her husband Sviatoslav Siryi, 26, two weeks ago. He is among the fighters who surrendered from the steel plant in May and was in custody in Olenivka.
She hasn't received any information about whether her husband is among the dead.
"It's not dying like a warrior — it is just being murdered," Danieka said to CBC News. "Since I read the news, I have been having severe anger."
While Danieka says she believes Russia carried out the missile strike, she believes others should share some of the blame for the fact that the soldiers are still in custody more than two months after surrendering.
The couple, who are both from the western city of Lviv, met during the protests on Kyiv's Maidan square back in 2014. He joined the Azov Regiment two years ago, and she describes him as being Ukrainian nationalist and from a traditional family.
Moscow continually points to the Azov Regiment, and its far-right origin, as perpetrators of "nazism." It's a claim the fighters and Ukraine strongly deny.
With files from CBC's Briar Stewart