The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is seeking access to the site of a deadly attack on a facility holding Ukrainian prisoners of war and has offered to help evacuate the wounded.
“The ICRC has offered its support in the evacuation of the wounded and to donate medical supplies, protective equipment and forensic material. 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.
“We have requested access to determine the health and condition of all the people present on-site at the time of the attack. We are also in contact with families, taking their requests and inquiries.”
Dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to have been killed when a prison building was destroyed in a missile strike or explosion, with Moscow and Kyiv accusing each other of responsibility.
The prison is in the frontline town of Olenivka held by Russian-backed separatists.
Russia says the death toll includes 40 prisoners and eight prison staff, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says more than 50 people have been killed in what he called a “deliberate Russian war crime”.
Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin was quoted as saying there were no foreigners among the 193 detainees.
Diplomatic efforts aim to sustain grain exports deal
The deaths, some of which were confirmed by Reuters journalists at the prison where the men were held in eastern Donetsk province, overshadowed a UN-brokered deal to restart shipping grain from Ukraine and ease a worldwide food crisis.
The deal was discussed by the top diplomats of the United States and Russia on Friday in their first phone call since before Russia’s invasion of its neighbour began on 24 February.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Washington was not living up to promises regarding the exemption of food from sanctions, the foreign ministry said.
For his part Mr Blinken said he told Mr Lavrov the world expected Russia to fulfil its commitments under the grains agreement between Ukraine and Russia.
Ukraine’s security agencies demanded the United Nations and Red Cross immediately react to the deaths of prisoners of war in a Russian-held jail. They said the two organisations had given guarantees the detainees would be well treated and should send investigators to the prison.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is seeking access to the site and has offered to help evacuate the wounded, ICRC said in a statement on Friday.
Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians since its invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians.
Ukraine’s SBU domestic security agency said it had intercepted telephone calls by Russia-backed separatists which suggested Russian troops had caused an explosion at the prison.
Ukrainian military intelligence said there was an explosion in a new building meant to house prisoners from the besieged Azovstal steel works in Mariupol.
It said the building was blown up by mercenaries from Russian private military company Wagner Group and was not coordinated with the Russian Defence Ministry.
Hundreds of civilians and badly wounded Ukrainian soldiers were encircled and trapped for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks before they laid down their arms.
The SBU said video footage online showed the windows in some rooms survived intact, suggesting there had been an explosion inside rather than shelling from outside.
A spokesman for the Moscow-backed separatists told journalists that Ukraine had attacked the prison after the POWs had begun talking about crimes conducted by the Ukrainian military.
“The political leadership of Ukraine decided to use US-producer multiple-launch rocket systems HIMARS to carry out a strike here to veil the crimes that the Ukrainian captives started talking about,” spokesman Eduard Basturin said.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States did not yet have definitive information on what happened with the prison, but urged caution on what Russia was claiming given that past claims had proven to be false.
Reuters could not immediately verify the differing versions of events.
A Russian foreign ministry account of the US-Russia phone call cited Mr Lavrov as telling Mr Blinken that Russia would achieve all the goals of its “special military operation” and said Western arms supplies to Ukraine would only drag out the conflict and multiply casualties.
Mr Blinken warned Mr Lavrov about any Russian territorial claims during its war in Ukraine.
“The world will not recognise annexations. We will impose additional significant costs on Russia if it moves forward with its plans,” he said.
Russia and Ukraine agreed last week to unblock grain exports from Black Sea ports, which have been threatened by Russian attacks since the invasion.
The deal was the first diplomatic breakthrough of the conflict but fierce fighting makes it extremely risky.
Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov told reporters in the southern port of Odesa that the country was ready to ship grain from two ports under the agreement but that no dates had been set.
He said he hoped the first ships could leave port before the end of the week.