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Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces arrive under escort of the pro-Russian military at a detention facility in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, on May 17.
Buses carrying service members of Ukrainian forces arrive under escort of the pro-Russian military at a detention facility in the settlement of Olenivka in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, on May 17. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Russian and Ukrainian authorities on Friday traded accusations over a purported strike on a prison in separatist-held eastern Ukraine that Russia says resulted in the death of dozens of prisoners.

CNN could not immediately verify the allegations. Brief clips of video aired on Russian networks and by social media channels in Donetsk show extensive destruction to a building and several bodies, but the location cannot be independently verified.

The Olenivka prison near Donetsk has been used to house many of the Ukrainian soldiers who surrendered at the Azovstal plant in Mariupol several months ago.

What Russia is saying: In a statement, the Russian defense ministry said “the Kyiv regime deliberately carried out a bloody provocation.”

“The pre-trial detention center in the area of ​​the settlement of Yelenovka (Olenivka), which contains Ukrainian military prisoners of war, including militants of the Azov formation, was hit by a missile attack from the American HIMARS multiple launch rocket system.”

The Russian defense ministry was reiterating claims made earlier by authorities in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, a separatist-held area of eastern Ukraine. 

“It was a direct hit on the prisoner barracks. The result as of now: 40 dead, 130 wounded. They are still clearing the rubble. The numbers may increase,” the deputy information minister of the DPR, Daniil Beznosov, said on his Telegram channel.

Russia’s defense ministry claimed that “this blatant provocation was committed to intimidate Ukrainian servicemen and prevent them from being taken prisoner.”

Later Friday, the deputy head of the militia of the DPR, Eduard Basurin, said the death toll had climbed to 53, with at least 71 wounded.

“At the moment, it is known for sure that 53 are dead, and 71 are wounded. The numbers may change,” Basurin said.

What Ukraine is saying: The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces accused Russian forces of carrying out “a targeted artillery shelling of a correctional institution in the settlement of Olenivka, Donetsk oblast, where Ukrainian prisoners were also held.”

“Russian occupiers pursued their criminal goals — to accuse Ukraine of committing ‘war crimes,’ as well as to hide the torture of prisoners and executions,” the General Staff said.

“The alleged shelling of civilian infrastructure and the population by the Armed Forces of Ukraine are outright lies and provocation, the responsibility of which is borne by Russia.”

The General Staff statement added: “According to the commander of the Missile Forces and Artillery of the Land Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not launch missile and artillery strikes in the area of Olenivka settlement.”

“Missile troops and artillery of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, thanks to the high-precision weapons received from partner countries, deliver extremely accurate strikes only on Russian military objects.”

The General Staff said that the armed forces “have never conducted and are not conducting shelling of civilian infrastructure, especially places where combat fellows are likely to be kept as POWs.”

“Russia has committed another petrifying war crime by shelling a correctional facility in the occupied Olenivka where it held Ukrainian POWs. I call on all partners to strongly condemn this brutal violation of international humanitarian law and recognize Russia a terrorist state,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

A group that works on behalf of Ukrainian soldiers held as prisoners of war posted Friday that “it is with deep sadness that we are forced to confirm the information about the attack on the penal colony in Olenivka, where the ‘Azov’ regiment soldiers are being held as POW.”

On its Telegram channel, the group — known as the Angels of Azov — said: “We are finding out the names of the dead and injured through our own channels. The International Committee of the Red Cross also went to the place.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross, whose representatives had previously visited the prisoners, has not commented. 

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