Accusations fly after dozens of Ukrainian POWs killed in prison

ODESA, Ukraine/KYIV: 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 deaths, some of which were confirmed by Reuters journalists at the prison where the men were held, overshadowed UN-backed efforts to restart shipping grain from Ukraine and ease a looming global hunger crisis.

Russia’s defence ministry said 40 prisoners were killed and 75 wounded in Thursday’s attack on the prison, in the frontline town of Olenivka, in a part of Donetsk province held by separatists.

A spokesman for the separatists put the death toll at 53 and accused Kyiv of targeting the prison with US-made HIMARS rockets.

Ukraine’s armed forces denied responsibility, saying Russian artillery had targeted the prison to hide the mistreatment of those held there. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia had committed a war crime and called for international condemnation.

Reuters TV showed the remains of a cavernous burned-out building filled with metal beds, some with charred bodies lying on them while other bodies were lined up on military stretchers or on the ground outside.

Shell fragments had been laid out on a blue metal bench. It was not immediately possible to detect any identifying markings and it was not clear where the fragments had been collected.

The Russian defence ministry said that the prison housed Ukrainian POWs and that eight prison staff were also wounded. Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushilin was quoted as saying there were no foreigners among the 193 detainees.

Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians during since its Feb. 24 invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians.

EXPLOSION OR SHELLING?

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.

Reuters could not immediately verify the differing versions of events. Ukrainian public news network Suspilne quoted an ICRC spokesman in Ukraine as saying the agency had asked for urgent access.

LAVROV DECRIES US SANCTIONS

News of the prison deaths came as Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said Ukraine was ready to restart grain shipments from its southern ports.

The global food crisis is complicated by US sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State Antony in a phone call.

A Russian foreign ministry read-out of the call also cited Lavrov as telling 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.

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.