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Ukrainian prisoners killed in 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 that 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 that 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 prisoners. The explosion killed at least 50 people, according to Russian officials, including fighters who surrendered to Russia in May at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

Both sides have blamed each other for the massacre, a possible war crime. And Russian officials and separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, where Olenivka is located, have barred independent investigators from reaching the country.

Russia’s Defense Ministry claims Ukrainian forces caused the blast using a US-supplied missile launcher known as the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Missile System), in an attack aimed at preventing fighters from giving information.

But available images of the destroyed prison building appear inconsistent with an attack launched by HIMARS, according to six experts consulted by The Washington Post. Experts cannot say definitively what caused the damage, but they noted the absence of shrapnel marks and craters and only minimal damage to interior walls in available footage of the aftermath. Instead, there were obvious signs of intense fire, which is in contrast to the damage caused by the more common HIMARS warhead.

Satellite images appear to show recent physical changes to the compound, and former detainees told The Post they were previously housed in a different area from where the explosion occurred. Ukrainian authorities alleging a deliberate transfer of fighters to a new residential area, which ended up being the area damaged by the explosion, indicates that Russian forces were planning 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 miles from the front line and about 12 miles from the city of Donetsk. It is divided into two sections: one with barracks and detention facilities, and the other with a disused industrial area where inmates worked years ago, when the prison was a regular penal colony, according to former inmates who spoke to The Posto.

Since May, the facility has housed several thousand people from Mariupol. Among those arrested were about 1,500 fighters from Azovstal, former commander of the Azov Regiment of the National Guard of Ukraine, Maksym Zhorin, told The Associated Press.

The International Committee of the Red Cross visited the facility in Olenivka twice on May 18 to assess the needs of prisoners of war and on May 20 to dump water tanks, the organization told The Post. On May 19, the ICRC said in a statement that he had registered hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war who surrendered in Mariupol.

But the organization has access has not been granted in Olenivka since the attack.

Ukrainian intelligence officials claim that the blast site was only recently equipped to house prisoners, a renovation that was only completed two days ago. After that, those arrested from Azovstal were transferred.

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

Three former prisoners, released from Olenivka in July, confirmed to The Post that these sites are in the southern part of the facility, where the prisoners were housed. One pointed out the buildings in the satellite images.

The blast damaged a building north of the shelter barracks, a white-roofed warehouse attached to a taller structure. Former inmates who spoke to The Post said it resembled parts of the industrial area at the facility where inmates worked in the past.

Ukraine’s ex-prisoners doubt Russia’s deadly blast story

Source: July 27 satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Source: July 27 satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Source: July 27 satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Satellite images obtained by Maxar Technologies on July 27 show what appear to be groups of people gathered in open areas near where the prisoners confirmed they were housed before the explosion, according to Steven De La Fuente, a research associate at the Institute of International Studies of Middlebury and a senior analyst at Maxar Technologies.

Satellite images also confirm recent changes in the area surrounding the blast-damaged structure. In July, a barrier was placed east of the building, according to De La Fuente and Tony Roper, an independent military analyst and blogger. The surrounding area also looks cleared of bushes.

In a joint declaration A 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 opened in the prison complex shortly before the explosion. Images captured by Planet Labs satellites show that the ground at the southern end of the complex was altered starting sometime between July 18 and 21.

A series of ground disturbances, measuring approximately 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 images alone were inconclusive, but De La Fuente said the concerns were reminiscent of human cemeteries elsewhere during the war.

A day after the explosion, concerns appeared to have been partially quelled.

Ukraine and Russia exchange blame for attack that killed Mariupol prisoners

What each side says about the outbreak

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

Russia’s Defense Ministry later issued a statement calling the explosion a bloody provocation by Ukraine. And on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said Ukraine had carried out the attack to prevent prisoners from testifying about alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Darya Morozova, a separatist official, said no Russian guards were injured.

Ukrainian defense officials have denied launching the attacks around Olenivka and instead accused Russia of orchestrating the blast 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 defense intelligence agency of Ukraine supposed On Wednesday, the Russian-backed forces had spread a highly flammable substance which, after the explosion, led to the rapid spread of the fire in the premises. He did not specify the substance or provide evidence. The agency accused Moscow’s FSB spy agency and Wagner Group mercenaries of involvement in the plot.

The United States believes Russia will fabricate evidence to blame Ukraine for the killings, including the placement of munitions from a HIMARS, according to a U.S. intelligence disclosure first reported by the Associated Press and confirmed by The Post. Russian media released photos of what they claimed were fragments of US-made HIMARS missiles at the scene.

The Ukrainians have sent many HIMARS their way, a senior US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to brief the media, suggesting the Russians may have collected parts from unrelated attacks elsewhere.

Ukrainian authorities also cast doubt on the list of those killed or injured published by Russia on the Internet. Andriy Yusov, official at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, said some soldiers on the list are believed to have been elsewhere at the time of the explosion.

The United Nations plans to to launch a fact-finding mission.

What rights do prisoners of war have under international law?

What the evidence so far shows

Videos of 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 the victims are visible on the bunks and on the floor. Other bodies, showing few signs of exposure to the fire, were filmed outside the building. The number of bodies visible in this initial set of videos is far fewer than the 50 Ukrainian soldiers the Russian Defense Ministry said were killed.

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

George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, told The Post that while there was some evidence of an explosion of some kind, the damage seemed inconsistent with an attack involving HIMARS, which delivers missiles without incendiary fire heads. .

“I don’t know how you get from an explosive but non-igniting warhead to a fire like that,” Herbert said. I see some beds of the central floor area blown off or twisted by an explosion, but no signs that it was a missile warhead.

Parts of the building’s metal roof were destroyed from the inside, but there were mostly no visible signs of severe burns elsewhere. Herbert told The Post that suggested the roof had collapsed after an initial explosion or fire.

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

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

If Russia were to blame, this would clearly be a war crime, William Schabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, wrote in an email.

If Ukraine had targeted its own soldiers, as Moscow has 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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