The United Nations and the Red Cross demanded access Saturday to the prison where dozens of Ukrainian POWs were killed, but Russia has so far met their requests with silence.
The UN wants to investigate the attack in the town of Olenivka in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine, which Moscow said killed 53 Ukrainian POWs and wounded another 75.
Ukraine maintains that Thursday night’s deadly shelling was a “war crime,” while Russia claims Ukraine launched the missiles that destroyed the building. Both sides say the attack was premeditated and intended to silence the prisoners inside and destroy evidence of potential atrocities.
“We are ready to send a team of experts capable of conducting an investigation with the permission of the parties,” Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman of the UN Secretary-General, told Russian media. He said the probe would require consent from all sides, and added that the UN supports the Red Cross’ efforts to gain access to the site.
The prison housed nearly 200 troops captured in Mariupol, the scene of many of the war’s worst atrocities, including many who held out in the Azovstal steel plant outside the city during weeks of brutal fighting.
Late Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a list naming 48 Ukrainian fighters who died in the attack, aged 20 to 62. It was not immediately clear if the list was intended to be complete, suggesting that fewer people had died than initially stated, or if some names were missing.
Russia has not yet said when and how the dead soldiers’ bodies might be retrieved, Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said.
“I have requested this information. So far, we have not yet received the lists. I know that the Russian side has them, but we do not have them at present,” Lubinets said. “I can only obtain the overall numbers – that is, how many [prisoners] were held there, how many have been killed, how many have been injured.”
Family members of the POWs are desperate for information as well.
“At the moment, my husband is not on the lists and I believe that he is alive,” Alina Nesterenko, whose husband was taken to the prison after surrendering at Azovstal, told the Guardian. “But lots of the guys are dead, lots of the guys are injured in Olenivka.”
“Three of us haven’t heard anything (from the Ukrainian authorities) so we assume they are fine, another girl’s husband was wounded and then there’s another whose husband was in the barrack that was hit, but she has not heard anything,” said Nesterenko.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it requested access “to determine the health and condition of all the people present on-site at the time of the attack.”
“Our priority right now is making sure that the wounded receive life-saving treatment and that the bodies of those who lost their lives are dealt with in a dignified manner,” the Red Cross said in a statement.
Ukraine and Russia, meanwhile, continued to trade accusations about who was responsible for the attack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the deaths “a deliberate Russian war crime, a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” in a video address posted on Facebook late Friday. “There should be a clear legal recognition of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Ukraine has appealed to the International Criminal Court over the attack.
“At this stage of the war, terror for Russia is the main weapon,” Zelensky said in another Facebook video posted Saturday afternoon. “And therefore the main task of every Ukrainian, every defender of freedom and humanity in the world is to do everything to isolate the terrorist state and to protect as many people as possible from Russian strikes.”
Moscow opened its own investigation on the blast, sending a team to the site from Russia’s main criminal investigation agency.
The state RIA Novosti agency claimed that fragments of US-supplied precision High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rockets were found at the site, which would indicate the attack came from Ukraine. Those findings could not be independently verified.
The think tank The Institute for the Study of War tweeted that “available visual evidence appears to support Ukrainian claims more than those of the Russians.”
Separately, the Ukrainian military said Saturday it had killed scores of Russian soldiers and destroyed two ammunition dumps in fighting in the Kherson region, the focus of Kyiv’s counter-offensive in the south and a key link in Moscow’s supply lines. It’s used Western-supplied long-range missile systems to badly damage three bridges across the Dnipro in recent weeks, cutting off Kherson city, the first town captured by Russia after the Feb. 24 invasion.
The first deputy head of the Kherson regional council, Yuri Sobolevsky, told residents to stay from away from Russian ammunition dumps. “The Ukrainian army is pouring it on against the Russians and this is only the beginning,” Sobolevsky wrote on the Telegram app.
The strikes potentially further isolate Russian forces west of the river from supplies in occupied Crimea and the east. The UK Ministry of Defense said Russia has resorted to pontoon bridges and a ferry system to compensate for destroyed bridges.
The offensive is part of a broader Ukrainian effort to win back territory lost to Russia in the country’s eastern and southern regions.
In other Ukraine war developments
- The Ukrainian government announced Saturday that all civilians in the eastern Donestk region, which is partially occupied by Russia and the scene of fierce ongoing fighting, must evacuate ahead of the winter. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the order applied to about 200,000 civilians who remain there, because there will be no heating fuel or electricity available once the weather turns cold.
- US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed efforts to get the first ships carrying Ukrainian grain moving soon, during a call with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Blinken also offered condolences over the killing of the POWs and “reaffirmed the US commitment to hold Russia accountable for atrocities committed by its forces against the people of Ukraine,” the State Department said.
- Russia’s state-owned natural gas company Gazprom halted shipments to NATO-member Latvia on Saturday, stating that Latvia broker the “terms for extraction of gas,” which was likely referring to the country’s refusal to pay for gas in rubles rather than other currencies. Gazprom has suspended shipments and played politics with gas supplies to other European Union countries, including suspending payments to the Netherlands, Poland and Bulgaria, because they would not pay in rubles.
- Russian rockets hit a school building in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city, overnight, and another attack occurred about an hour later, Mayor Ihor Terekhov said Saturday. There were no immediate reports of injuries. The bus station in the city of Sloviansk also was hit, according to Mayor Vadim Lyakh. Sloviansk is near the front line of fighting in the Donetsk region. In southern Ukraine, one person was killed and six injured in shelling that hit a residential area in Mykolaiv, a significant port city, the region’s administration said Saturday.
With post wires