ODESA, Ukraine (NYTIMES) – Five days after an explosion at a Russian prison camp killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, evidence about what happened remains sparse, but Ukrainian officials said on Wednesday (Aug 3) that they were steadily compiling proof that the mass slaughter was a war crime committed by Russian forces.
At a background briefing for journalists in the capital, Kyiv, senior Ukrainian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity outlined evidence to suggest that Russian forces appeared to be preparing for mass casualties in the days before the explosion last Friday.
Satellite images taken before the explosion, they said, show what appear to be freshly dug graves within the prison complex.
A New York Times analysis of images from Maxar Technologies and Planet Labs confirms that after July 18 and before July 21, about 15 to 20 ground disturbances appeared on the southern side of the complex, roughly 6 to 7 feet wide and 10 to 16 feet long at first; some later appeared to have been lengthened and merged with each other. Whether they were graves is unclear.
In addition, a day before the explosion, Russian forces positioned near the camp had opened fire on Ukrainian troops in an apparent attempt to draw return fire, the Ukrainian officials said.
“Understanding that we would not return fire, they carried out a terrorist attack themselves,” one of the briefers said. “How they did this needs to be carefully studied.”
Ukrainian officials, along with independent analysts, have cautioned that assessments so far have been solely reliant on publicly available information, including video published by the Kremlin’s own news services, of the blast site near the town of Olenivka on Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
A lack of verifiable evidence has made drawing clear conclusions difficult, and the Russian government so far has refused to grant independent investigators access to the site.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has a mandate under the Geneva Conventions to inspect conditions in which prisoners of war are held, requested permission from the Russian government to access the site on the day of the explosion.
“As of yet, we have not been granted access to the POWs affected by the attack, nor do we have security guarantees to carry out this visit,” the Red Cross said in a statement on Wednesday. Additionally, the organisation said offers to donate supplies like medicine and protective gear have gone unanswered.
Russia’s Defence Ministry has said, without offering any verifiable evidence, that Ukraine’s own military used a highly sophisticated American precision-guided rocket system known as HIMARS to kill the Ukrainian troops.
Military analysts call that unlikely but impossible to rule out with the available information.
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