Ukrainian officials say Russia is responsible for an explosion Friday morning in the Olenivka penal colony in the occupied Donetsk province that killed at least 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war. If Russia is proven responsible it would represent one of the worst war crimes committed by Russian forces since the Feb. 24 invasion.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a meeting later Friday with Ukrainian heads of staff and the parliament’s Human Rights Commissioner to discuss the attack, which Ukraine says was deliberately staged by Russian occupation forces, according to Ukrainskaya Pravda.
In a report, Ukraine’s Directorate of Intelligence said it believes that the killing of Ukrainian prisoners in Olenivka was organized by the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin without coordination with the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense.
Russia’s official TASS news agency, which of course blamed Ukraine for the attack, did report that 53 out of 193 POWs inside the pre-trial detention center at Olenivka were killed, and 71 others were wounded. Seven severely wounded Ukrainian POWs were being treated in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Donetsk, a surgeon told TASS. The Russian Defense Ministry said eight prison staff were also wounded.
Among those held in the Olenivka penal colony are defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol who surrendered in mid-May.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) said it had intercepted telephone conversations about the explosion:
“The Security Service of Ukraine intercepted telephone conversations in which the occupiers confirm that Russian troops are to blame for this tragedy. Thus, even the militants of the so-called “DPR” [self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] do not believe the lies of Russian propaganda that the ‘shelling’ of the correctional facility institutions in Olenivka were implemented by Ukraine.
“Moreover, the SSU has several such audio recordings at its disposal – all of them will be included as evidence in the relevant criminal proceedings. The Ukrainian special service has already opened the criminal proceeding under Article 438 of the Criminal Code (violation of the laws and customs of war).”
The SSU said the intercepted conversations indicate “the Russians could have staged a tragedy due to the explosives they placed in the premises of the colony.”
“None of the eyewitnesses heard any rocket flying towards the correctional facility. There was no characteristic whistling, and the explosions occurred by themselves,” the SSU reported.
The SSU report accused Russian forces of placing Grad systems near the penal colony and firing them at Ukrainian-controlled territory, but said no counterfire from Ukrainian batteries was observed. The report said that DNR fighters confirmed this.
The special service added that videos showed that the windows of some rooms in the penal colony were completely preserved, indicating that the epicenter of the explosion was inside the destroyed building and its walls absorbed the blast waves.
In general, there is a lot of evidence that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not launch rocket and artillery strikes in the Olenivka area. “Therefore, all statements of Russian propaganda about alleged shelling by the Armed Forces are outright lies and provocation,” the SSU report said.
The acting head of the SBU, (the security service of Ukraine), Vasily Malyuk, said: “No matter what nonsense the enemy invents to justify himself, it is obvious to everyone that the Russian Federation is guilty of the deliberate killing of Ukrainian prisoners.” Malyuk said the Security Service will do everything possible to ensure that those guilty are punished.
In a Telegram post, the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense called the explosions in Olenivka “a deliberate provocation and an undeniable act of terrorism by the occupying forces’ side.” The Main Directorate of Intelligence said:
“According to the available information, they were carried out by mercenaries from the Wagner Group private military company (PMC) under the personal command of the nominal owner of the specified PMC, Yevheny Prigozhin. The organization and execution of the terrorist attack was not agreed with the leadership of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.”
It said the Wagner Group carried out the explosion in order to cover up the theft of funds allocated for the care of Ukrainian prisoners. The report added that a commission from Russia was due to arrive at Olenivka to review the expenditure of allocated funds and the conditions of detention of prisoners.
However, the actual condition of the building did not meet the requirements, so the “problem” was eliminated by destroying the premises with the Ukrainians inside. The second goal of the terrorist attack was to increase social tension around Ukraine, taking into account the public interest in the captured Heroes of Azovstal,” the intelligence directorate said. It said the building was specially equipped to hold prisoners from Azovstal.
By the way, Prigozhin, who has close ties to Vladimir Putin, is wanted by the FBI with a $250,000 reward offered. This is for allegedly engaging in “conspiracy to defraud the United States” by sponsoring the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg-based “troll factory” that allegedly carried out an online campaign to influence U.S. elections and politics, in particular the 2016 presidential election.
Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” for serving the future Russian leader at his fancy St. Petersburg restaurant, is a leading military contractor who was responsible for supplying food to Russian troops.
Among those killed were members of the Azov Regiment who were captured when the Azovstal defenders laid down their arms, said Andriy Biletskyi, the regiment’s founder. He called it a “pre-planned act” in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war carried out by a country “for which the concept of officers’ honor is unknown.”
“I, on behalf of the Azov units, announce a hunt for everyone involved in the mass murder. Every rank-and-file actor and every organizer, regardless of their position and location, will bear responsibility. Wherever you hide, you will be found and exterminated,” Biletskyi said in a Telegram post.
Russia’s TASS news agency claimed that it was the Ukrainian forces who fired on the detention center. It said that 53 out of 193 people in the building were killed. “I believe that it is a war crime because the Ukrainian authorities killed their own people as all the prisoners of war are Ukrainian nationals,” said Deputy Militia Chief in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) Eduard Basurin.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman claimed the strike was carried out by a “US-made HIMARS rocket system.”
A later TASS report even claimed that Ukrainian nationalists deliberately struck the detention facility to intimidate other prisoners and prevent them from testifying about war crimes.
And of course, Russia said it had opened its own criminal case into the strike. Again, this is how Russian propaganda works—what stands out is the reference to U.S.-made HIMARS, which are high-precision weapons that have taken a devastating toll on Russian forces.
Ukraine’s General Staff said such claims by Russian propagandists “are outright lies and provocations.”
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine put out a statement on Facebook: “The Russian occupiers pursued their criminal goals in order to accuse Ukraine of committing ‘war crimes,’ as well as to cover up the torture and executions of prisoners which they carried out there on the orders of the occupation administration and the command of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in the temporarily occupied territory of Donetsk Oblast.”