As global outrage grew over an explosion that killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners held in a Russian detention camp, Ukrainian authorities on Saturday called for an international investigation as they gathered evidence they believed would prove that Russia had orchestrated what they describe as a “terrorist attack”. .”
Since the explosion at Correctional Colony No. 120, a prison camp in the Russian-occupied eastern region of Donetsk, the warring factions have presented diametrically opposed accounts of what happened, further embittering a war now entering its sixth month.
Russian officials claimed that Ukrainians, using US-supplied precision weapons, attacked the prison itself to deter defectors. Ukrainian authorities dismissed the story as absurd, saying the dead were a premeditated atrocity committed by Russian troops from prison, where survivors described being given just enough food to survive and undergoing ritual abuse, including with chains and metal pipes.
The explosion is particularly painful for the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, as many of the dead had fought to defend Mariupol, a port on the Black Sea, and then retreated to the Azovstal steel plant. For weeks they endured a Russian attack there before finally surrendering in May.
For many Ukrainians, the siege of Azovstal became a symbol of the country’s suffering and resistance, and the soldiers who fought there, of whom an estimated 2,500 were taken as prisoners of war, were considered heroes.
“It was a deliberate Russian war crime, a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” Zelensky said in a speech late Friday.
Mr Zelensky said the Red Cross, along with the United Nations, had acted “as guarantees for the life and health of our soldiers” and that they must now take action. “They have to protect the lives of hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” he said.
A series of Russian rocket attacks on civilian targets, including shopping malls and apartment buildings, has prompted the Ukrainian government to call on Washington to designate Moscow as a state sponsor of terrorism, something Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has opposed.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, said in a statement that Russia’s ongoing “unlawful and unjustified war of aggression” brought with it “further heinous atrocities” every day, adding that the “inhuman, barbaric acts” were in violation of the Geneva Conventions and were war crimes.
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Kaja Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia, a Baltic country that was among Moscow’s toughest opponents during the war, said Russia was responsible for the “mass murder” of prisoners in the camp, an act she said was reminiscent of ” the darkest chapters in history.”
“There should be no impunity for war crimes, just as there can be no return to relations with war criminals,” she said in a statement.
For Mr. Zelensky, the prison explosion fits a pattern in which an unwarranted invasion of his country, ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, was accompanied by atrocities committed by Russian troops, for example in suburbs north of the capital Kiev. , and rocket attacks on civilian targets, including one this month in a shopping center in the center of the country, far from the front lines.
Russia controls about 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory, but after deploying its superior artillery force earlier this month to take much of Luhansk province in the eastern Donbas region, Kiev is now launching a counter-offensive in the province. Kherson in an effort to reclaim land.
Moscow denies committing atrocities or targeting civilians, and on Saturday the defense ministry said Ukrainians had killed their own soldiers using precision-guided American-made missiles known as HIMARS to attack the detention camp in Russian-controlled territory. in Eastern Ukraine.
An adviser to the Ukrainian president, Mykhailo Podoliak, told The New York Times that an expert analysis of photos and videos released by Russia indicated that the center of the explosion was inside the building, with the building’s exterior virtually undamaged. .
In addition, he said the speed of Russian propaganda after the attack suggested planning. Prisoners had been transferred to the barracks where the explosion had taken place several days earlier and it was suspected that no Russian soldiers or workers in the prison had been injured, he said. He went on to say that before the explosion, Russia had moved debris to the camp from previous attacks elsewhere involving HIMARS weapons.
Tetiana Kravchenko, a Ukrainian human rights activist whose organization has been in contact with inmates in the camp, said an inmate called his wife Thursday night and reported hearing an explosion rather than shelling around 11 p.m. the phone call, in which the inmate said that two of his friends had moved to another building in the prison on the day of the explosion and that one was now dead and the other injured.
Soldiers detained in other parts of the camp have also passed similar stories to their own relatives, she said.
The competing claims could not be independently verified immediately. Ms. Kravchenko said she could not release more information without jeopardizing the safety of prisoners still held in the camp.
Essentially, the invasion killed tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and brought much more misery. It has also had far-reaching externalities, revitalizing NATO, isolating Russia, raising energy prices and depressing global growth. Given Ukraine’s importance to global grain markets and Russia’s effective blockade of Black Sea ports, it has also threatened some countries in the Middle East and Africa with food shortages and hunger.
The first shipments of grain since the start of the conflict have been loaded onto cargo ships in Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. The shipments are said to be the result of a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations about a week ago. Mr Zelensky and representatives of the Group of 7 Industrialized Countries visited Chernomorsk, one of three ports in Odessa province, on Friday.
Odessa has been a frequent target of Russian missile strikes, the most recent being a week ago with an attack on the port that cast doubt on the grain deal. Indeed, mr. Podoliak said the explosion at the prison was another sign that Russian guarantees that it would provide safe passage for grain ships across the Black Sea could not be trusted.
Elsewhere on the ground, the battle has largely turned into a series of incremental offensive and defensive maneuvers with only a limited area changing hands each week.
The Donbas region, where the Ukrainian army said on Saturday it was fending off the last Russian attempts to advance, is the clearest example of this slowdown. But in Kherson province, Ukraine hopes that Western-supplied HIMARS and other weapons will help the country move forward.
Ukraine said it stormed critical Russian logistics hubs overnight and made small but steady gains as it moved to the city of Kherson, a shipbuilding center and port, where Ukrainian missile strikes on a bridge over the Dnipro River attacked Russian defenders. largely isolated.
It will be weeks and perhaps longer before the outcome of Kherson’s counteroffensive will be decided, not least because the war demonstrates the military maxim that attack is harder than defense. But a senior US Department of Defense official told a news conference on Friday that there was mounting evidence that massive Russian losses had left some units ill-prepared for combat. The official described Russia’s recent efforts as a failure, both on the battlefield and at home.
Michael Schwirtz reporting contributed.