KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — 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 who were captured after the fall of a key southern city in May. Both sides said the assault was premeditated with the aim of covering up atrocities.
Russia claimed that Ukraine's military used U.S.-supplied multiple 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 wounded another 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, and 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 “a deliberate, cynical, calculated mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners.”
Neither claim could be independently verified.
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the internationally unrecognized Donetsk republic, said the prison held 193 inmates. He didn’t specify how many 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 deadly attack and urged the United Nations and other international organizations to condemn it. He said the Russians had transferred some Ukrainian prisoners to the barrack that was hit 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.
A Russian Defense 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.
Ukrainian forces are fighting to hold on to the remaining territory under their control in Donetsk, which together with neighboring Luhansk province makes up Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking industrial Donbas region.
For several months of the war in Ukraine, Moscow has focused on trying to seize parts of the Donbas not already held by the separatists. Ukrainian authorities in the Donetsk region accused Russia on Friday of shelling civilian targets in Ukrainian-held areas.
“The fighting in the region has been intensifying by the day, and civilians must evacuate while it’s still possible,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said. “The Russian army doesn’t worry about civilian casualties. They are pummeling cities and villages in the region.”
He later said one person was killed and five injured Friday in Russian rocket strike on the city of Kramatorsk.
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 of the Ukrainian national guard 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.