As international outrage grew, Ukraine on Saturday called on global organizations, including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to quickly investigate an explosion that tore through a Russian prison camp holding dozens of Ukrainian soldiers, leaving only charred bodies and twisted metal bunks. .
The Ukrainians acted quickly and forcefully on Friday to counter the official Russian narrative that the Ukrainians had used American-made precision weapons to strike the prison and kill their own fighters to deter anyone considering surrendering to Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials said the idea that they would assassinate their own soldiers – many of whom fought to defend the Azovstal steelworks in the city of Mariupol and are widely considered national heroes – was absurd.
“It was a deliberate Russian war crime, a deliberate mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening speech.
The Red Cross oversaw the surrender of around 2,500 Ukrainian troops when they laid down their arms at the steelworks in May. Many had been brought to the facility that was the site of the explosion: Correctional Colony No. 120, a prison camp near the town of Olenivka in the Russian-occupied region of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky said that the Red Cross, together with the United Nations, had acted “as the guarantor of the life and health of our soldiers”, and that action must now be taken. “They must protect the lives of hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war,” he said.
The Red Cross said in a statement that it had requested access to the site of the attack and was in contact with the families of the soldiers imprisoned there.
“Our priority right now is to ensure that the injured receive life-saving treatment and that the bodies of those who lost their lives are treated with dignity,” the agency said.
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, said in a statement that every day Russia’s continuation of “illegitimate and unjustified war of aggression” leads to “further horrific atrocities”.
He said the attack on the prison camp and a recent graphic video that appeared to show a Russian soldier castrating a Ukrainian prisoner of war were evidence of Russian violations of international law.
“These inhumane and barbaric acts represent serious violations of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocol, and constitute war crimes,” he said.
Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, said Russia was responsible for the “mass murder” of prisoners at the camp, an act she said recalls “the darkest chapters of history”.
“There must be no impunity for war crimes, just as there can be no return to relations with war criminals,” she said in a statement.
Critics of the Russian invasion of Ukraine pointed to a statement published by the Russian Embassy in Great Britain on Twitter as evidence of how Moscow views prisoners of war.
“Azov activists deserve to be executed, but death not by firing squad but by hanging, because they are not real soldiers. They deserve a humiliating death,” the embassy said in a Twitter post, linking to a propaganda video shot in Mariupol.
Twitter has since called the statement a violation of the platform’s rules on hateful conduct. The outlet wrote that it left the post up because “it may be in the public interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”
The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said that while the killing of Ukrainian prisoners aroused “fury”, the army would continue to follow “the standards of international humanitarian law”.
However, he also called for revenge.
“We will do everything possible – and impossible – to punish those guilty of crimes against our brothers and sisters in arms, as well as against civilians,” he said in a statement. “These crimes are imprescriptible. Beware, enemies, you will have nowhere to hide on this Earth.