At least 53 Ukrainian POWs feared dead after missile strike on prison camp near Donetsk
Ukraine and Russia traded accusations on Friday after a missile strike on a prison camp in Olenivka, a village outside of Donetsk, reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
The casualties from the strike were first reported by officials from the Kremlin-controlled “Donetsk People’s Republic” on the morning of July 29. The Russian side has used the prison camp in Olenivka, which is located inside DNR-controlled territory, to hold Ukrainian captives since the start of the February invasion — including such high-profile POWs as the Ukrainian troops captured after the siege of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant.
The authorities in Donetsk blamed the Ukrainian side for the strike, claiming that a US-made HIMARS missile system carried out a direct hit on one of the prison camp’s barracks, killing 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war and injuring 75 others. The Russian Defense Ministry also claimed that the strike injured eight prison guards (the DNR’s “human rights commissioner” Daria Morozova later reported that there were no injuries among the prison camp’s personnel).
Update. In a statement on Friday, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office announced the initiation of a preliminary investigation into the missile strike on war crimes charges. According to RIA Novosti, the Russian Investigative Committee has also launched a criminal probe.
Following the strike, the Russian Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of carrying out a “blatant provocation,” suggesting that the shelling was an act of “intimidation” meant to discourage Ukrainian soldiers from surrendering. DNR leader Denis Pushilin also accused Ukraine of deliberately striking the prison camp, alleging that the aim was to “destroy” captured soldiers from the Azov Regiment and thereby prevent them from “testifying.”
In turn, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces accused Russia of shelling the prison camp. In a statement, the Ukrainian General Staff said that the Russian military carried out a “targeted artillery” strike, in an attempt to frame Ukraine for war crimes and cover up “the torture of prisoners and executions.” The Ukrainian Armed Forces “have never conducted and are not conducting shelling of civilian infrastructure, especially places where fellow prisoners of war are likely to be kept,” the General Staff stated.
Writing on Twitter, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba described the strike as a “petrifying war crime” and urged international partners “to strongly condemn this brutal violation of international humanitarian law and recognize Russia [as] a terrorist state.”
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak stated that “there are no operational military targets for the Ukrainian army” in Olenivka. “The scale and speed of the information campaign by Russian propagandists indicate that this was a planned, organized act,” Podolyak wrote on Telegram. “We know that some of the captured defenders were moved to the barrack that was hit a few days before the crime. A classic, cynical, thought-out false flag operation.” (According to DNR “human rights commissioner” Daria Morozova, Kyiv had insisted that Ukrainian POWs be transferred to the Olenivka prison.)
Andrey Rudenko, a correspondent for the Russian state-owned broadcaster VGTRK, published footage apparently showing the damage from the strike. At first, former prisoners held in Olenivka told Mediazona Belarus that they didn’t recognize the location in the video as part of the prison grounds. However, Rudenko later posted a second video, which two of the former prisoners said appeared to have been filmed at the prison.
A few hours later, VGTRK posted a video that purportedly showed fragments of a HIMARS rocket. Where these fragments were filmed cannot be independently verified. However, the video also shows a Bible laying on a bench, which resembles one shown in Rudenko’s second video.
The prison camp in Olenivka is located roughly 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the front. The DNR authorities regularly report that Ukrainian forces are shelling Horlivka, a city even closer to the front line located 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Olenivka prison camp. Olenivka is also situated on the outskirts of Yenakiieve, a city inside DNR-controlled territory that last came under shelling on June 13.
Ukrainian troops were also accused of shelling the Olenivka prison camp back in June. Ukrainian politician and pro-Kremlin blogger Anatoly Shariy (who is wanted in Ukraine for treason) wrote on Telegram on June 24 that the prison in Olenivka had been subjected to “targeted shelling” for two days straight.
That same day, a video appeared on Telegram in which Aiden Aslin — a British national illegally sentenced to death by a proxy court in Donetsk after being captured while fighting as a Ukrainian marine in Mariupol — said that Ukrainian troops were shelling the “detention center in Donetsk” where he was being held. He did not say whether he was referring to the prison camp in Olenivka.
Update. Later on Friday, Ukraine’s Security Service, Armed Forces, Military Intelligence Directorate, and Parliamentary Human Rights Commissioner issued a joint statement condemning the missile strike on the Olenivka prison camp as “cynical terrorist act [by] the Russian Federation, a military provocation, and a classic false flag operation.” The statement also called on the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to “immediately respond” and send representatives to Olenivka to carry out an inquiry.