ODESSA, Ukraine — For Russians, Ukrainian militants imprisoned in Correctional Colony No. 210 are a trophy. For Ukrainians, they are war heroes.
Why either side would want any of them dead remains a mystery, but that’s the question that hung over the fighting in Ukraine on Friday after yet another deadly episode in which each side accused the other of committing a war crime.
What is known is that in the early hours of Friday morning, there was an explosion in the barracks of a POW camp in the Russian-occupied town of Olenivka in southeastern Ukraine that killed at least 50 people, according to both Ukrainian and Russian officials. captured militants and dozens more injured. Videos posted by Russian military bloggers show mangled metal bunk beds and the charred bodies of their former occupants.
The Russian Defense Ministry said at a daily briefing on Friday that Ukraine used a sophisticated US-made missile system to strike the prison in order to issue a warning to Ukrainian soldiers who may be considering surrendering to Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials have called the allegations absurd, saying Russia carried out the massacre to cover up the atrocities they committed in prison. “The Russian occupiers are pursuing their criminal goals, accusing Ukraine of committing war crimes, while hiding the torture and execution of prisoners,” the Ukrainian General Staff said in a statement.
It stated that Ukraine was using a new highly mobile artillery rocket system, or HIMARS, exclusively to engage Russian military targets.
Ukrainian forces have successfully used a Western-supplied missile system to destroy Russian ammunition depots and command centers with a high degree of accuracy. HIMAR fired hundreds of satellite-guided missiles into Ukraine, and there were no reports of them hitting civilian targets by mistake.
Neither party’s claims about the prison explosion can be independently verified. But Russia regularly blames Ukraine for its attacks on civilian targets, including an April strike that killed 50 people at a train station in Kramatorsk, alleging without evidence that Ukraine is conducting so-called false flag operations to expose Russia. in a bad light.
A senior US military official, referring to Russia’s allegations of an attack on the HIMARS camp, said: “We have not seen any evidence to support these allegations.”
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The prisoners who were kept at the base in Olenevka were not just soldiers. An estimated 2,500 of them were fighters from the Azovstal steel plant in the city of Mariupol. Their 80-day battle against vastly superior Russian forces from bunkers under a giant factory has become a legend in Ukraine, with the commanders’ faces now visible on billboards across the country.
Their surrender in mid-May marked the end of one of the most brutal battles of the war and gave Russia a significant victory as well as a trump card. Ukraine and Russia have already agreed to exchange 144 of the most seriously wounded militants, and negotiations were underway for another exchange of prisoners.
Russian officials have not provided convincing evidence to support their claims that Ukraine targeted the prison. A Kremlin-friendly military blogger posted a video of twisted metal fragments that he said were the remains of a HIMARS missile. According to Russian officials, no Russian guards were killed or injured in the explosion.
Ukrainian intelligence agencies quickly intervened. The domestic intelligence service, the SBU, released late Friday an audio recording of what the agency claimed were two pro-Russian separatist fighters discussing the explosion over the phone. In the call, which could not be independently verified, one person said that there had been no sound of any rocket before the explosion and that the Russian troops had probably blown up the barracks themselves.
Mykhailo Podolyak, chief adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, accused Russia of carrying out a “carefully planned attack” on the pre-trial detention center, noting that there were no tactical military targets in the town of Olenivka. According to him, Russian troops transferred Ukrainian soldiers to the barracks only a few days before Friday’s attack.
“The Russians deliberately, cynically and deliberately killed Ukrainian prisoners en masse,” he said.
In a rare joint statement released Friday night, Ukraine’s intelligence services, military and human rights ombudsman called the attack “an organized killing of Ukrainian prisoners” and called on the UN and the International Red Cross to travel to Olenivka with Ukrainian officials. research.
Prisoners released from Correctional Colony No. 210 described hellish conditions. The guards gave the prisoners enough food to survive and beat them regularly.
Vitaly Sytnikov, a 35-year-old civilian arrested in March while trying to evacuate other residents of Mariupol, described the punishment cell known as “the pit.”
“Almost every day we heard prisoners of war being beaten there,” Mr. Sytnikov said in a telephone interview, adding that most of the victims of such treatment were Azovstal soldiers.
Shortly before the arrival of the Azovstal soldiers in mid-May, significant changes took place in the camp, according to two former prisoners. The separatist fighters who once stood guard were replaced by soldiers from Russia proper, and the separatist rebel flag was taken down and replaced with the Russian tricolor flag; the changes were a testament to the importance of the new prisoners.
But there was another significant change, according to Dmitry Bodrov, 32, another Mariupol civilian who was held at the camp. Russian soldiers began to turn around near the barracks and fire rockets in the direction of Ukrainian positions, apparently in an attempt to provoke Ukrainian forces into shelling the POW camp.
“Because of all this artillery, everything around was on fire,” Mr. Bodrov said.
He said that in the time before his release on July 4, Ukrainian forces had never launched strikes on the territory of the camp.
Mr. Bodrov said that the camp’s industrial zone, where the explosion took place on Friday, had not previously been used to house prisoners. General Kirill Budanov, commander of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said on Friday that the construction of the barracks in the zone had been completed two days earlier and the prisoners had been moved there just before the explosion.
Since the Azov fighters were considered especially valuable prisoners, it was not clear why Russia would kill them. In a statement, General Budanov offered one possible explanation, stating that the attack appeared to have been carried out by Russian mercenaries operating outside the normal chain of command. The Russian Defense Ministry appeared to have been caught off guard and forced to justify the attack after the fact, he said.
Late Friday evening, the Russian government said it had no regrets about the loss of Ukrainian prisoners. AT snarky twitter postThe Russian Embassy in the UK said that the soldiers of the Azov Regiment, which made up the majority of Azovstal’s defenders, “deserve to be shot, but not by shooting, but by hanging, because they are not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death.”
The Kremlin has a history of fabricating narratives to cover up potential war crimes. After the Russian anti-aircraft system shot down a passenger airliner with regard to Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin came up with a series of exotic and ever-changing explanations that have not withstood peer review. At one point, Russian officials said the Malaysian Airlines plane with 298 people on board was actually filled with corpses before takeoff.
The Ukrainian war itself is based on the Kremlin’s lie that Russian troops were sent to liberate the country from a fascist junta based in Kyiv with the help of Western governments.
This week’s attack came after a video surfaced online showing a Russian soldier castrating a Ukrainian prisoner of war and then shooting him in the head. Ukrainian officials have loudly condemned the violence; the authenticity of the video cannot be verified independently.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa. Valerie Hopkins from Tivat, Montenegro and Cora Engelbrecht from London. Eric Schmitt made a report.