(CN) — The war in Ukraine turned particularly gruesome on Friday after more than 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed and dozens more were wounded when a prison was struck by rocket fire during the night.
Videos showed mangled prisoners' bodies strewn inside the destroyed Olenivka detention center. Ukraine and Russia traded blame for the attack. Russian media said the death toll had risen to 53 and that more than 75 prisoners were wounded. Eight prison guards were also wounded, according to Russia's defense ministry.
Hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners were being held in the prison south of Donetsk, an eastern Ukrainian city that has been under control of pro-Moscow separatists since 2014 when the war in Ukraine started following the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president and the installation of a pro-Western government in Kyiv.
Many of the prisoners killed in Olenivka were reportedly members of the Azov Regiment, a highly politicized and controversial branch of the Ukrainian army due to its links to the Ukrainian far-right nationalist movement. Azov prisoners face war crimes trials, long sentences and even potential execution in the self-declared republic of Donetsk.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, fighting remained fierce in eastern and southern parts of the country with reports that Russian and pro-Russian forces were making small advances in their campaign to capture the entire Donetsk region.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's efforts to mount a counteroffensive in Kherson, a Black Sea region that fell under Russian control early in the invasion, showed little progress. In Kyiv and the West, there are high hopes that Ukrainian forces – aided by advanced Western weapons – can push Russian forces out of Kherson and other places on the Black Sea by the end of the year.
In other developments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to Odesa on Friday and announced vital grain shipments from Ukraine's ports were due to resume soon.
Ukraine and Russia reached a deal last week to allow cargo ships with grain and fertilizer from both countries safe passage through the Black Sea. Kyiv said shipments could start Friday or Saturday.
“It is important for us that Ukraine remains the guarantor of global food security,” Zelenskyy said in Odesa. “The first vessel, the first ship is being loaded since the beginning of the war. This is a Turkish vessel. This shows that the port has started working.”
The resumption of grain and fertilizer shipments is seen as a crucial step in staving off food shortages in the poorest parts of the world. Ukraine and Russia are major food exporters and the war threatens to cause widespread famine. Food and energy prices continue to soar because of the war, putting a massive strain on the global economy.
The attack on the Olenivka prison, though, overshadowed the optimism over the resumption of cargo shipments.
Following the attack, both sides traded bitter accusations and used the bloody episode to bring up allegations of war crimes.
Russia alleged Ukraine wanted to kill the Azov prisoners awaiting trial because of recent releases of prisoner videos in which Ukrainian fighters talked about committing alleged war crimes. Such videos, though, are deemed highly untrustworthy because prisoners of war often speak to captors and make false confessions under duress.
But Russian media and military sources also charged that fragments of U.S.-supplied HIMARS rockets found at the prison proved that Ukraine was behind the attack.
Conversely, Ukrainian officials accused Russia of striking the prison to destroy evidence that Ukrainian prisoners were tortured and executed.
In the wake of the strike, Ukrainian sources also pointed to a newly released video that allegedly showed Russian soldiers castrating a Ukrainian prisoner with a utility knife. The video started circulating on Thursday on social media, according to the Moscow Times.
The attack on the prison came hours before Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked by telephone and discussed possible prisoner exchanges.
The White House is seeking the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan.
Griner was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport in February and testified Wednesday at her trial. Griner acknowledged in court that she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived in Moscow in February but contends she had no criminal intent and packed the cartridges inadvertently.
Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He and his family have vigorously asserted his innocence. The U.S. government has denounced the charges as false.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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