Former inmates of Ukrainian prison doubt the story of the deadly explosion in Russia

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Even before the deadly blast that killed at least 53 Ukrainian soldiers on Friday, the separatist-controlled Olenivka prison in the eastern province of Donetsk was known to human rights groups. man as a place of lawlessness where pro-Russian forces detain civilians flagged as “potential enemy collaborators”. and military prisoners of war.

Located just a few miles from the frontline of the war, it served as a detention center for several thousand people brought from Mariupol after Russia captured this port city in southern Ukraine in May following brutal and prolonged siege. Among them were hundreds of soldiers who fought back from the city’s last stronghold, the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works, before finally surrendering.

In March, nearly three dozen aid workers volunteering to rescue Mariupol civilians ended up in Olenivka because Russian officers and separatist forces viewed them as suspects. They were released just two weeks ago, and their accounts of conditions and treatment inside the prison bolster Kyiv’s accusations that the slain Ukrainian fighters were deliberately moved to an abandoned warehouse there. – a place that was later destroyed.

Moscow quickly alleged that the Ukrainian army had targeted its own people, striking the built with a US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to prevent soldiers from testifying about “crimes against humanity” committed by Ukrainian forces. To support this account, Russian state media later released a video showing a charred structure with a large hole in its roof, crushed bunk beds and burned body parts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky angrily denounced the Kremlin scenario, calling the prison attack a “deliberate Russian war crime”. The Ukrainian General Staff maintained that Russia organized it “to cover up the torture and execution of prisoners”.

Three volunteer aid workers, who spent around 100 days in Olenivka, told the Washington Post that the building identified by Moscow as “a detention center” was located in a separate area of ​​the complex that had not been used to hold detainees. prisoners.

“I can definitely tell you that the video does not show the prison barracks, and [the demolished building is] is not part of the living quarters,” said Evgeny Maliarchuk, who was arrested by Russians in Mariupol as he attempted to evacuate about 20 civilians in a bus he had bought and driven from Kyiv.

“We have been in every building, every barracks, the disciplinary insulator, ordinary detention centers, solitary confinement, all of that,” he said by phone.

According to Maliarchuk, the prison was closed for about eight years and reopened by pro-Russian separatists shortly before the invasion. A section of Correctional Institution No. 120, as it is officially called, includes barracks and detention areas; the other is an industrial area filled with aging equipment where convicts once worked.

“The building in the video looks like those workshops located directly in the industrial area,” he added. “So if this was a planned action and prisoners were being transferred from the barracks, the question arises: why?”

Satellite imagery of the prison, reviewed by open-source intelligence analyst Oliver Alexander, supports this account.

Russian propaganda has particularly targeted Azovstal fighters, especially the Azov regiment, considered one of Ukraine’s most effective units but controversial for its ties to the far right. He presents the two as living proof that Ukraine has been invaded by “neo-Nazis” and demands the “denazification” of Moscow.

The fall of Mariupol and the capture of the soldiers were featured as key victories on Russian television. And at Olenivka, Russian flags were hoisted and Russian guards and special service agents arrived, surrounding the site with military trucks and howitzers.

In May, the Kremlin promised Azovstal fighters would be treated “in accordance with international standards” and said Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed it. Yet reports from Ukrainian and Russian human rights groups indicate that the captured soldiers were severely beaten – and worse – by prison guards and military officers.

Two of the aid volunteers told the Post they heard “screams, awful sounds” in Olenivka, where cells designed for half a dozen people were sometimes filled with up to 30. The group left prison in mid-July after a grassroots campaign led by a European initiative secured their release.

A man named Dmitry, whom The Post identifies only by his first name due to concerns for the safety of loved ones living under Russian occupation, said he spent weeks in a cage in the prison’s detention center and was witnessed multiple “initiation rituals” of new arrivals. Ukrainian soldiers.

The new prisoners were ordered to strip naked and kneel with their heads propped against a wall as guards beat them with batons, according to Dmitry. Then they were forced to crawl upstairs before being kicked back into their cells, he said.

Last Friday’s attack apparently did not injure any of the prison’s Russian guards. An official from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the region’s breakaway state, said “only the prisoners suffered”.

Besides the issues raised by the Russian state media video, Western officials and military analysts questioned other inconsistencies in the Kremlin statement. Most focused on the Kremlin’s mention of the HIMARS rocket system, which is normally reserved for long-range strikes up to 50 miles away.

“The HIMARS claim can be swept away immediately,” said Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team who has been tracking Russian military activities for nearly a decade. “Olenivka is located 10 kilometers from Novomykhailivka, the closest point from where, theoretically, Ukraine could strike. If your target is 10 kilometers away, why do you need HIMARS? »

Ukraine’s security service said it intercepted calls in which “the occupiers confirm that Russian troops are to blame”. Experts warn that there is still little forensic evidence available to determine what exactly hit the building where the prisoners were.

Two unnamed US officials told Politico that no trace of HIMARS was found on this site. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in its update Monday that it held Russian forces responsible for the deaths of Ukrainian prisoners. At least 75 prisoners were injured.

“Had Ukraine used something other than HIMARS to carry out the attack, the attack almost certainly would have left collateral damage around the facility, including craters and other damaged buildings,” the assessment said.

Zelensky’s government asked the United Nations and the Red Cross to investigate the attack, but Russia refused to grant them access.

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