WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials believe Russia is working to fabricate evidence concerning last week’s deadly strike on a prison housing prisoners of war in a separatist region of eastern Ukraine.
U.S. intelligence officials have determined that Russia is looking to plant false evidence to make it appear that Ukrainian forces were responsible for the July 29 attack on Olenivka Prison that left 53 dead and wounded dozens more, a U.S. official familiar with the intelligence finding told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Separately, a Western government official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said explosive experts who have reviewed photos of the prison released by the Russians following the incident have determined that the destruction wasn’t likely caused by “a high-explosive strike from the outside” and that it was “much more likely to be incendiary and from inside the location.”
Russia has claimed that Ukraine’s military used U.S.-supplied rocket launchers to strike the prison in Olenivka, a settlement controlled by the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic.
The Ukrainian military denied making any rocket or artillery strikes in Olenivka. The intelligence arm of the Ukrainian defense ministry claimed in a statement Wednesday to have evidence that local Kremlin-backed separatists colluded with the Russian FSB, the KGB’s main successor agency, and mercenary group Wagner to mine the barrack before “using a flammable substance, which led to the rapid spread of fire in the room.”
The U.S. official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the classified intelligence — which was recently downgraded — shows that Russian officials might even plant ammunition from medium-ranged High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, as evidence that the systems provided by the U.S. to Ukraine were used in the attack.
Russia is expected to take the action as it anticipates independent investigators and journalists eventually getting access to Olenivka, the official added.
Ukraine has effectively used HIMARS launchers, which fire medium-range rockets and can be quickly moved before Russia can target them with return fire, and have been seeking more launchers from the United States.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday angrily dismissed the U.S. officials’ claims about Russia fabricating the evidence.
“It has been absolutely proven and it’s absolutely obvious what happened in Olenivka,” Peskov said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed by the Ukrainian military. Ukraine killed its soldiers who were in captivity, and many others were wounded. There is an evidence and there is nothing to hide.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he is appointing a fact-finding mission in response to requests from Russia and Ukraine to investigate the killings at the prison.
Guterres told reporters he doesn’t have authority to conduct criminal investigations but does have authority to conduct fact-finding missions. He added that the terms of reference for a mission to Ukraine are currently being prepared and will be sent to the governments of Ukraine and Russia for approval. Peskov said that Russia has invited the U.N. and the Red Cross to visit the site and conduct a probe.
The Ukrainian POWs at the Donetsk prison included troops captured during the fall of Mariupol. They spent months holed up with civilians at the giant Azovstal steel mill in the southern port city. Their resistance during a relentless Russian bombardment became a symbol of Ukrainian defiance against Russia’s aggression.
More than 2,400 soldiers from the Azov Regiment of the Ukrainian national guard and other military units gave up their fight and surrendered under orders from Ukraine’s military in May.
Scores of Ukrainian soldiers have been taken to prisons in Russian-controlled areas. Some have returned to Ukraine as part of prisoner exchanges with Russia, but other families have no idea whether their loved ones are still alive, or if they will ever come home.
U.S. and U.K. officials, before the war and in its early stages, repeatedly went public with what they said were Russian plans to stage fake videos and events that the Kremlin would blame on Ukraine but in fact were perpetrated by Russia.
Lederer reported from the United Nations. Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.