ODESSA/Kyiv, Ukraine, July 29 (Reuters) – Dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war appeared to be killed after a prison building was destroyed in a missile attack, with Moscow and Kyiv accusing each other on Friday of carrying out the attack.
Some of the deaths were confirmed by Reuters reporters in the prison where the men were being held, overshadowing a UN-backed effort to restart Ukraine’s food shipments and ease the looming global hunger crisis.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said 40 inmates were killed and 75 wounded in a prison attack in the frontline town of Olenivka in the separatist-held Donetsk province.
A spokesman for the separatists put the death toll at 53 and accused Kyiv of targeting the prison with US-made HIMARS rockets. The ministry also said the HIMARS rocket was the culprit, according to the Russian news agency.
Ukraine’s armed forces deny carrying out the attack, saying Russia shelled the prison to conceal mistreatment of detainees. Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba said Russia had committed war crimes and called for international condemnation.
Reuters TV showed the remains of a huge burned-out building filled with metal beds, some with charred bodies lying on top, while others lined up on military stretchers or on the ground outside.
The shell fragments were placed on a blue metal bench. No identifying marks were immediately detected, and it was unclear where the fragments were collected.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the prison was holding Ukrainian prisoners of war and eight prison staff were injured. No foreigners were among the 193 detainees, the Russian-backed separatist leader Denis Pushlin was quoted as saying.
Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians since its February 24 invasion and said it had identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Russia denies targeting civilians.
Ukrainian military intelligence said Thursday’s prison strike was a “deliberate act of terrorism”. The domestic security agency said it intercepted calls pointing to Russia being responsible.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said the prison attack was a shirk of responsibility.
“In this way, the Russian occupiers pursued their criminal goals – accusing Ukraine of ‘war crimes’ and concealing the torture and execution of prisoners,” it said.
Russia has denied involvement in war crimes, accused Kyiv of orchestrating them to discredit its military and said it was investigating war crimes in Ukraine.
A spokesman for Moscow-backed separatists told reporters in Olenivka that the Ukrainian attack came after prisoners of war started talking about crimes committed by Ukrainian troops.
Spokesman Edward Basturin said: “The Ukrainian political leadership decided to launch an attack here using the U.S.-produced multiple rocket system HIMARS to cover up the crimes that the Ukrainian prisoners started talking about.”
Neither version of the event could be verified immediately.
Separately, Ukraine said at least five people were killed and seven wounded in a Russian missile attack on the southeastern city of Nikolayev near the Black Sea, when Russia opened fire on front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Russia had no immediate comment on the situation.
News of the missile attack came as Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said Ukraine was ready to restart food shipments from its southern ports.
Russia and Ukraine agreed last week to lift a blockade on grain exports from Black Sea ports, which have been under threat of Russian attack since the invasion.
The deal was the first diplomatic breakthrough in the conflict, with Asian wheat quotations slipping this week on expectations of higher supplies.
But the fierce battle makes it very dangerous.
Kubrakov told reporters in the southern port of Odessa that the country was ready to deliver food from two ports under a UN-brokered deal, but no dates had been set.
“A total of 17 ships were loaded before the war. Today we started loading another ship in Chernomorsk. In principle, we have solved almost all technical problems,” he said.
He said he hoped the first ships would only leave the port by the end of the week, while Bridget Brinker, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said she hoped for a deal later Friday to clear the way for the first shipments.read more
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine was ready and waiting for a signal from the United Nations and Turkey to start delivering goods.read more
While global food prices have risen as a result of hampered grain in Ukraine, one of the world’s top exporters, a shortage of Russian gas has pushed up energy prices in Europe and sparked fears of winter shortages.
Moscow has described its invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” in self-defense and blamed Western sanctions for the lack of gas supplies. Ukraine and its allies have said the Russian attack was completely unprovoked and accused Moscow of energy blackmail.
Follow the South
The latest intelligence from the UK says Russia has ordered mercenaries to take control of parts of the Ukrainian front – a sign of a shortage of Russian combat infantry as Kyiv intensifies its counteroffensive in the south.
Relying more on fighters from Russia’s private military company Wagner Group for front-line missions, rather than their usual jobs in special operations, would be another sign of the pressure on the Russian military.
“This is a significant change from the group’s work since 2015, when the group usually had a different mission than Russia’s overtly large-scale conventional military activities,” the ministry said.
Wagner and the Kremlin could not be reached for comment.
Ukraine’s counterattack in the south comes as Russia is vying for control of the entire industrialized Donbass region in the east. It has taken one of the two provinces, Luhansk, and is advancing in Donetsk, where the prison attacked on Friday is southwest of the provincial capital.
Reporting by Reuters Division; Writing by Stephen Coates, Philippa Fletcher and Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Hugh Lawson
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