Russia, Ukraine trade blame in prison shelling that apparently killed dozens of Ukrainian POWs

Russia and Ukraine on Friday accused each other of shelling a prison in a separatist eastern region, a strike that apparently killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war who were captured after the fall of Mariupol in May.

Russia said 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.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov described the strike as a “bloody provocation” aimed at discouraging Ukrainian soldiers from surrendering. He said eight prison guards were also wounded in the shelling.

The Ukrainian military denied any rocket or artillery strikes on Olenivka, insisting that it wasn’t shelling civilian areas and only strikes Russian military targets.

It accused the Russian forces of deliberately shelling the prison in order to accuse Ukraine of war crimes and to cover up torture and executions there.

APTOPIX Russia Ukraine Mariupol Defenders Photo Gallery
  In this photo provided by THE Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office, a Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant prior to surrender to Russian forces on May 16, 2022.

Dmytro Kozatsky / AP


The statement denounced the Russian claims as part of an “information war to accuse the Ukrainian armed forces of shelling civilian infrastructure and the population to cover up their own treacherous action.”

Neither claim could be independently verified.

The Reuters news agency reports that video from a Russian war correspondent showed Russian-backed military personnel combing through what was left of what he said was the prison, with the roof hanging down. Bodies were also visible in the video.

Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-backed separatist leader, said the prison has 193 inmates. He didn’t specify how many of them were Ukrainian POWs.

Ukrainian authorities in the Donetsk region said Russia has pressed on with the shelling of 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,” said Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko. “The Russian army doesn’t worry about civilian casualties. They are pummeling cities and villages in the region.”

The Ukrainian troops in Mariupol were taken prisoner after the fierce fighting for Ukraine’s Azov Sea port, where they had been holed up at the giant Azovstal steel mill. Their resistance has become a symbol of Ukrainian struggle against the Russian invasion that started on Feb. 24.

The Azov Regiment and other Ukrainian units defended the steel mill for nearly three months, clinging to its underground maze of tunnels. More than 2,400 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 the Donetsk region, a breakaway area in eastern Ukraine which is 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.

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