Blame game erupts as Ukrainian POWs targeted in Russian shelling

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The Ukrainian military command has accused Russian troops of deliberately shelling a jail containing Ukrainian prisoners of war in the eastern Donetsk region in the early hours of Friday, which reportedly resulted in dozens of deaths.

According to the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, targeted artillery shelling of the prison was carried out by Russian forces in order “to accuse Ukraine of committing war crimes, as well as to hide the torture of prisoners and executions which they carried out there.”

According to authorities in the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, at least 53 Ukrainian POWs were killed and 75 were injured in the prison located in the town of Olenivka in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

Relatives of Ukrainian fighters, who surrendered earlier this year in the port city of Mariupol after months of heavy fighting, said in interviews with POLITICO in June that some of their husbands and brothers were detained in Olenivka.

Footage aired by Russian state television channels and posted on social media by government-backed war correspondents from the scene shows the burned prison building with a hole in the roof.

Charred remains of bodies scattered among burning metal could be observed among what was left of the prison.

Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry accused Ukrainian troops of striking the prison with high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), which the U.S. supplied to Kyiv in recent weeks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last Wednesday that Washington would send four more HIMARS to Ukraine, which outperform in both range and precision the artillery that Ukraine previously possessed. The latest supply of HIMARS should bring the total number in the Ukrainian arsenal to 16.

This “blatant provocation” was allegedly committed with the aim of intimidating Ukrainian servicemen and preventing their surrender, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement.

Kyiv immediately rejected such accusations. “[Ukrainian] missile troops and artillery … thanks to the high-precision weapons received from partner countries, deliver extremely accurate strikes only on Russian military objects,” the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said.

Ukrainian forces have never conducted and are not conducting shelling of civilian infrastructure, especially places where prisoners of war are likely to be kept, Ukrainian military command added.

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said he believes that Russian troops “deliberately, cynically and intentionally” killed captured Ukrainian citizens en masse.

The tragedy, according to Podoliak, will be investigated by the Prosecutor General’s Office and international investigation teams. “Obviously, sensing the approach of tactical defeats, Russia will resort to new cannibal provocations in order to promote them to global markets,” he added.

On Friday afternoon, Ukrainian military intelligence said that the attack on the prison was carried out by Russian private military firm Wagner, whose members take part in the battle for the Donbas region.

“The organization and implementation of the terrorist attack were not agreed with the leadership of Russian defense ministry,” the intelligence said in a statement.