Moscow says Ukraine killed 40 prisoners in an attack conducted with the US-made rocket system, a claim Kyiv denies.
Russia has accused Kyiv of striking a jail holding Ukrainian prisoners of war in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, killing 40 detainees including some who had defended Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant.
The Russian defence ministry said a HIMARS missile strike hit a pre-trial detention centre in Olenivka, in the separatist-held region of Donetsk, overnight on Friday.
“Forty Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed and 75 wounded,” the ministry said in its daily briefing, adding that the centre held fighters from the Azov battalion.
Those troops had surrendered earlier this year after a three-month siege of Mariupol’s steelworks and were transferred to Russian-held territory.
Eight employees of the detention centre were also injured, Russia said.
Kyiv has denied having conducted a strike on the prison.
“The Armed Forces of Ukraine, which fully adhere to and fulfil the principles and norms of international humanitarian law, have never conducted and are not conducting shelling of civilian infrastructure, especially places where fellow prisoners of war are likely to be kept,” the military said in a statement.
Russian television showed what appeared to be destroyed barracks and tangled metal beds, but no casualties could be seen.
Moscow claimed that the attack was a “bloody provocation of the Kyiv regime” designed to discourage Ukrainian troops from laying down their arms.
“This egregious provocation was carried out to intimidate Ukrainian servicemen,” the defence ministry said.
The Kremlin has played up the influence of the Azov battalion, claiming that its members are neo-Nazis.
Azov formed as a volunteer battalion in 2014 to fight Russian-backed forces and has since then been integrated into the Ukrainian army. The group claims to encompass a range of political views, but some of its leaders are known to hold far-right ideas.
Legislator Leonid Slutsky, one of Russia’s negotiators in stalled peace talks with Ukraine, in May called the evacuated combatants “animals in human form” and said they should receive the death penalty.
“They do not deserve to live after the monstrous crimes against humanity that they have committed and that are committed continuously against our prisoners,” he said.
The United States has sent M142 HIMARS to war-torn Ukraine as part of a $700m security assistance package for Ukraine that also included helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more.
In an op-ed in the New York Times in May, President Joe Biden wrote that the US will “provide the Ukrainians with more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will enable them to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine”, although he did not name the systems by name.
Analysts say HIMARS is considerably more accurate than other rocket systems currently used by Ukrainian forces.