Volodymyr Zelenskiy has denounced as a war crime a prison attack that killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Russian-occupied Donetsk, as both sides traded blame for the deaths.
In a Friday night address, the Ukrainian president said more than 50 died in the assault on Olenivka, calling it “a deliberate Russian war crime, a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war”.
The captured fighters – who Russia’s defence ministry said included members of the Azov battalion, who defended the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol – should have been protected by guarantees secured by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Zelenskiy, who joined his foreign minister in urging those organisations to intervene and investigate.
Olenivka is about 10km south of occupied Donetsk and close to the frontline. Establishing responsibility is likely to be highly challenging without independent access to the site.
The Red Cross said it had requested access to determine the health and condition of those in the prison at the time of the attack. “Our priority right now is making sure that the wounded receive life-saving treatment and that the bodies of those who lost their lives are dealt with in a dignified manner,” it said in a statement.
Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN secretary general, told a Friday press briefing it did not yet have any first-hand information about the attack, and that “the question of access is also a difficult point”. “We would strongly encourage … all the parties on the ground to fully investigate what’s happened,” he said.
Russia’s defence ministry said 40 prisoners were killed and 75 wounded in the prison attack but accused Ukrainian forces of striking the prison with US-made Himars rockets.
Moscow describes the Azov battalion, a former paramilitary unit that has previous links to far-right groups, as a neo-Nazi organisation.
Ukraine’s defence 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 domestic security agency, the SBU, said it had intercepted phone calls that pointed to Russia being responsible. Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, said he had opened a war crimes investigation into the blast.
There was no way to immediately verify either of the two versions of events.
Footage broadcast on Russian television said to be from the scene at the prison showed military personnel examining a building with a hole in the roof, tangled metal from bunk beds and blood trails among personal effects. Other images showed charred bodies and dismembered limbs.
Russian media later published pictures of what it said were fragments from a US Himars rocket, gathered together and placed on what appeared to be a bench rather than 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”. The intercepted conversations indicated 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.”
The Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak called for a “strict investigation” into the attack and urged the UN and other international organisations to condemn it. He said the Russians had transferred some Ukrainian prisoners to the barrack just a few 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 steel mill for nearly three months, clinging to its underground maze of tunnels. They surrendered in May under relentless Russian attacks from the ground, sea and air.
Scores of Ukrainian soldiers were taken 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 families of others have no idea whether their loved ones are alive, or if they will ever come home.
Friday’s attack raises serious questions about where the prisoners were being held, in what circumstances, and why they had not been moved to a safer location.
It also raises questions about the status of those killed. Under the Geneva conventions, registered prisoners of war would not be tried for legally participating in conflict.