Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Ukraine calls for POW investigation
Red Cross requests access to site amid outrage over attack
As global outrage grew over an explosion that killed 53 Ukrainian prisoners held at a Russian detention camp, Ukrainian authorities called for an international investigation Saturday while marshaling evidence that they said would prove that Russia had orchestrated what they described as a “terrorist attack.”
Since the explosion late Thursday at Correctional Colony No. 120, a prison camp in the Russian-occupied eastern region of Donetsk, the warring parties have presented diametrically opposed accounts of what happened, further embittering a war now entering its sixth month.
Russian officials claimed that Ukrainians, using precision weapons supplied by the United States, had attacked the prison themselves, to deter defectors. Ukrainian authorities rejected the narrative as absurd and said the deaths were a premeditated atrocity committed by Russian forces from within the prison, where survivors described being given just enough food to survive and suffering ritual beatings, including with chains and metal pipes.
The explosion is particularly painful for the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy because many of the dead had fought to defend Mariupol, a port on the Black Sea, and then retreated to the city’s Azovstal steelworks. For weeks there, they withstood a Russian onslaught before surrendering in May.
For many Ukrainians, the Azovstal siege became a symbol of the country’s suffering and defiance, and
the soldiers who fought there, an estimated 2,500 of whom were taken as prisoners of war, have been viewed as heroes.
“Condemnation at the level of political rhetoric is not enough for this mass murder,” Zelenskyy said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has organized civilian evacuations in the war and worked to monitor the treatment of POWS held by Russia and Ukraine, said it has requested access to the prison “to determine the health and condition of all the people present on-site at the time of the attack.”
But the organization said late Saturday that its request had not been granted.
“Granting ICRC access to POWs is an obligation of parties to conflict under the
Geneva Conventions,” the ICRC said on Twitter.
A series of Russian missile strikes on civilian targets, including shopping malls and apartment buildings, has led Ukraine to call on Washington to designate Moscow as a state sponsor of terrorism, something Secretary of State Antony Blinken has resisted.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, said in a statement that every day, Russia’s continued “illegitimate and unjustified war of aggression” brought “further horrific atrocities,” adding that the “inhumane, barbaric acts” breached the Geneva Conventions and amounted to war crimes.
For Zelenskyy, the prison explosion fits a pattern in which an unwarranted
invasion of his country, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been accompanied by atrocities committed by Russian forces — for example, in suburbs north of the capital, Kyiv, and missile strikes on civilian targets.
Russia controls around 20% of Ukraine’s territory, but after it deployed its superior artillery power to seize much of Luhansk province in the eastern Donbas region this month, Kyiv is now pressing a counteroffensive in Kherson province.
Moscow denies that it has committed atrocities or targeted civilians, and Saturday, the defense ministry said that Ukrainians had killed their own soldiers using precision-guided, U.S.-made missiles, known as HIMARS, to strike the prison camp in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.
But Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said 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 practically undamaged.
In addition, he said prisoners had been moved to the barracks where the explosion occurred only days before, and it was suspicious that no Russian soldiers or workers at the prison were injured. Beyond that, he said that Russia, before the explosion, had moved debris to the camp from previous strikes elsewhere that had involved HIMARS weapons.
The competing claims could not be independently verified.
The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, said the competing claims and limited information prevented assigning full responsibility for the attack, but the “available visual evidence appears to support the Ukrainian claim more than the Russian.”
Moscow has opened a probe into the attack and the U.N. said it also was prepared to send investigators.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said “we stand ready to send a group of experts able to conduct an investigation, requiring the consent of the parties, and we fully support the initiatives” of the Red Cross.