Prison attack that killed Ukrainian prisoners of war a war crime, Zelenskiy says, amid calls for UN probe

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has denounced an attack on a prison that killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russian-held Donetsk as a war crime, as both sides blamed each other for the deaths.

In a speech on Friday night, the Ukrainian president said more than 50 were killed in the Olenivka assault, calling it a “deliberate Russian war crime, a deliberate mass killing of Ukrainian prisoners of war.”

The captured fighters, who the Russian Defense Ministry said included members of the Azov Battalion, which was defending the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, should have been protected by safeguards guaranteed by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Zelenskiy said, which joined. his Minister of Foreign Affairs in urging these organizations to intervene and investigate.

Olenivka is about 10 km south of occupied Donetsk and close to the front line. Establishing responsibility is likely to 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 in the prison at the time of the attack. “Our priority right now is to ensure that the injured receive life-saving treatment and that the bodies of those who lost their lives are treated with dignity,” he said in a statement.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general, told a press conference on Friday that he did not yet have any first-hand information about the attack and that “the issue of access is also a difficult point.” . “We will strongly encourage … all parties on the ground to fully investigate what has happened,” he said.

Russia’s defense ministry said 40 prisoners were killed and 75 wounded in the attack on the prison, but accused Ukrainian forces of attacking the prison with US-made Himars rockets.

Moscow describes the Azov Battalion, a former paramilitary unit with past links to far-right groups, as a neo-Nazi organisation.

Ukraine’s defense forces denied responsibility for the attack and said Russian artillery had targeted the prison to cover up the fact that the men held there had been “tortured and killed”. The country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, earlier said Russia had committed a “barbaric war crime”.

Ukraine’s military intelligence said the attack was a “deliberate act of terrorism” and the internal security agency, the SBU, said it had intercepted phone calls pointing to Russia being responsible. Ukraine’s attorney general, Andriy Kostin, said he had opened a war crimes investigation into the explosion.

There was no way to immediately verify either version of events.

In other developments:

  • The Ukrainian military said it had killed dozens of Russian soldiers and destroyed two ammunition dumps in the Kherson region, the focus of Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the south and a key link in Moscow’s supply lines.

  • The US ambassador to the United Nations said on Friday that there should be no longer any doubt that Russia intends to dismantle Ukraine “and completely dissolve it from the world map”. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the UN security council that the US saw growing signs that Russia is laying the groundwork to try to annex the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, including by installing “illegitimate proxies in areas controlled by Russia, with the aim of holding referendums or mock decree to join Russia.

Images broadcast on Russian television on Friday from the scene at Olenivka prison showed military personnel examining a building with a hole in the roof, tangled metal from bunk beds and traces of blood among personal effects. Other images showed charred bodies and dismembered limbs.

Russian media later released images of what it said were fragments of a US Himars rocket, assembled and placed on what appeared to be a bank rather than being located in situ.

The SBU claimed it had intercepted phone calls “in which the occupiers confirm that Russian troops are to blame for this tragedy.” Intercepted conversations indicated that the Russians may have planted explosives in the prison, the agency said in a statement. “Notably, none of the eyewitnesses heard any missiles flying toward the correctional facility. There was no distinctive whistle 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 its walls received the impact of the blast waves, protecting 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 had moved some 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 the 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 were transferred to prisons in Russian-controlled areas such as Donetsk, an area in eastern Ukraine run by Russian-backed separatist authorities.

Some have returned to Ukraine as part of prisoner exchanges with Russia, but the families of others have no idea 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 had not been moved to a safer location.

It also raises questions about the status of the killings. Under the Geneva Conventions, registered prisoners of war would not be tried for lawfully participating in a conflict.

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