Ukrainian prisoners of war killed in the Olenivka prison explosion: what you need to know

A satellite photo provided by Maxar Technologies shows a view of the Olenivka detention center, after an explosion reportedly killed Ukrainian soldiers.  (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/AP)
A satellite photo provided by Maxar Technologies shows a view of the Olenivka detention center, after an explosion reportedly killed Ukrainian soldiers. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/AP)


Early on July 29, on the outskirts of the village of Olenivka in eastern Ukraine, a mysterious explosion ripped through a separatist-controlled prison housing hundreds of Ukrainian detainees. The blast killed at least 50 people, Russian officials said, including fighters who surrendered to Russia in May at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Both sides blamed each other for the massacre – a potential war crime. And Russian and separatist officials, from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, where Olenivka is located, have barred independent investigators from accessing the site.

The Russian Defense Ministry says Ukrainian forces caused the explosion using a US-supplied rocket launcher known as HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), in a strike intended to deter fighters to give information.

But available footage of the destroyed prison building appears inconsistent with an attack launched by HIMARS, according to six experts consulted by The Washington Post. Experts could not say for sure what caused the damage, but they pointed to a lack of shell marks and craters and only minimal damage to internal walls in the available visuals of the aftermath. Instead, there were visible signs of an intense fire, which is at odds with damage from the more common HIMARS warhead.

Satellite images appear to show recent physical changes to the compound, and former inmates told the Post they were previously housed in a different area from where the explosion occurred. The Ukrainian authorities who claim a deliberate transfer of fighters to a new residential area, which was ultimately the area damaged by the explosion, demonstrate that the Russian forces had planned an attack.

Here’s what we know about what happened in Olenivka prison on July 29.

What we know about the prison and its inmates

The prison camp is located just a few kilometers from the front line – and about 20 kilometers from the city of Donetsk. It is divided into two sections: one with barracks and detention centers and the other with a disused industrial area where inmates worked years ago, when the prison was an ordinary penal colony, according to former detainees who spoke to The Post.

Since May, the facility has housed several thousand people from Mariupol. Among the detainees were about 1,500 Azovstal fighters, former commander of the Ukrainian national guard’s Azov regiment, Maksym Zhorin, told The Associated Press.

The International Committee of the Red Cross visited the Olenivka facility twice – on May 18 “to assess the needs of prisoners of war” and on May 20, “to deposit water tanks outside the organization told the Post. On May 19, the ICRC said in a press release that he had registered hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war who went to Mariupol.

But the organization has not allowed to access in Olenivka since the attack.

Ukrainian intelligence officers allege that the site of the explosion was only recently fitted out to house prisoners, a renovation that only resulted in Two days before. After that, detainees from Azovstal were transferred.

A series of videos published by Russian media early June, and recently shared by Oliver Alexander, open source intelligence analyst, on Twitter, shows inmates in the facility. Prisoners can be seen walking around in or near various buildings, including a dining hall and barracks, surrounded by a fenced perimeter.

Three former prisoners, released from Olenivka in July, confirmed to The Post that these locations were in the southern part of the facility, where inmates were housed. The buildings were recalled in satellite imagery.

The blast damaged a building north of the living quarters – a white-roofed warehouse attached to a longer structure. Former prisoners who spoke with The Post said it looked like parts of the facility’s industrial area where prisoners worked in the past.

Former Ukrainian detainees doubt Russia’s deadly blast story

Source: Satellite image from July 27 ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Source: Satellite image from July 27 ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Source: Satellite image from July 27 ©2022 Maxar Technologies

According to Steven De La Fuente, research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and principal analyst at Maxar Technologies.

Satellite imagery also confirms recent changes to the area surrounding the blast-damaged structure. In July, a barrier was erected to the east of the building, according to De La Fuente and Tony Roper, an independent military analyst and blogger. The surrounding area also appeared to be cleared of shrubbery.

In a joint statement the day after the attack, the Ukrainian military, security and intelligence services pointed to “the deliberate transfer of fighters to new premises shortly before the explosion” as evidence of “the planned nature of this crime and its commission by the Russian side.

Ukrainian authorities also claim that graves were dug in the prison complex shortly before the explosion. Images captured by Planet Labs satellites show that land at the southern edge of the complex was altered between July 18 and July 21.

A series of ground disturbances, measuring about 5-6 meters in length, are visible in this area in Maxar images taken on July 27. Roper and a senior Maxar analyst said the footage alone was inconclusive, but De La Fuente said the disturbances were “reminiscent of human graves” in other places during the war.

A day after the explosion, the unrest appeared to have been partially covered up.

Ukraine and Russia swap responsibility for the attack that killed Mariupol prisoners

What each side says about the explosion

On July 29, shortly after 9 a.m. local time, a message appeared on the Telegram account of Deputy Minister of Information Daniil Bezsonov of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, stating that an attack occurred overnight at the prison, which he blamed on the Ukrainian HIMARS.

The Russian Defense Ministry later issued a statement calling the explosion a “bloody provocation” of Ukraine. And on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Ukraine carried out the attack to prevent prisoners from testifying about alleged Ukrainian war crimes. Darya Morozova, a separatist official, said no Russian guards were injured.

Ukrainian defense officials denied launching attacks around Olenivka and instead accused Russia of staging the explosion to “cover up the torture and execution of prisoners” at the facility. President Volodymyr Zelensky called it a “deliberate Russian war crime”.

Based on “available data”, the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Agency alleged On Wednesday, Russian-backed forces had released a “highly flammable substance” which, upon detonation, “led to the rapid spread of fire within the premises”. He did not specify the substance or present any evidence. The agency accused Moscow’s FSB spy agency and Wagner Group mercenaries of involvement in the plot.

US believes Russia will fabricate evidence to blame Ukraine for killings, including planting ammunition from a HIMARS, US intelligence find first reported by The Associated Press and confirmed by The Post. Russian media shared photos of what they claimed were fragments of American-made HIMARS rockets at the scene.

‘The Ukrainians sent a lot of HIMARS their way,’ a senior US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to brief the media, suggesting the Russians may have assembled pieces of unrelated attacks somewhere else.

Ukrainian authorities have also cast doubt on Russia’s online list of those killed or injured. Andriy Yusov, official at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, said it is believed that some soldiers on the list were elsewhere at the time of the explosion.

The UN plans to launch a fact-finding mission.

What rights do prisoners of war have under international law?

What the evidence shows so far

Videos from the prison released on the morning of July 29 by Russian media sources show signs of an intense fire. But the structure is largely intact, except for the roof. The charred bodies of victims are visible in bunk beds and on the floor. Other bodies, showing few signs of fire exposure, are filmed outside the building. The number of bodies visible in this first set of videos is far below the 50 Ukrainian soldiers who the Russian Defense Ministry says were killed.

The six experts – including arson investigators, engineers and weapons analysts – cautioned against drawing any firm conclusions about the attack. But most agreed that the available visual evidence of the aftermath did not bear the hallmarks of a HIMARS attack.

George William Herbert, an assistant professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, told the Post that while there was evidence of some explosion, the damage appeared inconsistent with an attack involving HIMARS, which launches rockets without incendiary warheads. .

“I don’t know how you go from an explosive warhead – but not an incendiary one – to a fire like that,” Herbert said. “I see beds in the central floor area blown or twisted by an explosion, but no signs that it was a rocket warhead.”

Parts of the building’s metal roof crumbled inwards but were largely devoid of the heavy scorch marks visible elsewhere. Herbert told the Post that the roof was knocked down after an initial explosion or fire.

“The extremely light structural damage to the walls appears inconsistent with the expected effects of the standard HIMARS rocket,” analysts at defense intelligence provider Janes wrote in an assessment for The Post.

Janes also said the elaborate operation Russia accuses Ukraine of undertaking would have been difficult to pull off, requiring extraordinary precision and coordination as well as real-time updates on the lifestyle inside. .

If Russia were the culprit, “it would clearly be a war crime,” William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, wrote in an email.

If Ukraine were targeting its own soldiers, as Moscow claimed, it would most likely be an “ordinary crime of murder” rather than a war crime, Schabas said.

John Hudson and David L. Stern contributed to this report.

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