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Dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war may have been killed in a missile strike

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war may have been killed in a strike on a prison in eastern Ukraine. Prisoners were among the last Ukrainian holdouts of a steel plant in Mariupol, people that Ukrainians consider to be heroes. Ukrainian and Russian forces now accuse each other of being behind the attack. NPR's Tim Mak joins us now from Kyiv. Tim, thanks so much for being with us.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Seems like both the Ukrainians and Russians agree there was an explosion at a facility holding Ukrainian POWs. Dozens were injured and killed. What else do we know?

MAK: So the prisoners of war are Ukrainian soldiers who were part of this now-famous unit which held out for months in Mariupol while being surrounded by Russian forces. Russia and Russian-backed forces accused the Ukrainians of the attack. They say that Ukraine killed their own soldiers in order to stop them from giving incriminating statements. Now, Ukraine, meanwhile, has said that they launched no missile or artillery strikes in the area of the prison. They accuse Russia of attacking the prison to cover up the execution and torture of Ukrainian prisoners held there. NPR is unable to independently verify these claims.

However, Russia has said that the attack was undertaken with American-supplied rockets known as HIMARS. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War assessed that images from the attack do not show the sort of damage that HIMARS would have caused and that available evidence supports the Ukrainian claim more than the Russian claim although that think tank did stop short of declaring which party it believed was responsible.

SIMON: What has the reaction been so far?

MAK: Well, you know, the International Red Cross along with the U.N. helped mediate the surrender of these Ukrainian holdouts from Mariupol after a monthslong siege. And they said that they've requested access to the prison, which is in Russian-occupied territory. But so far, there's no indication that they've been able to reach it to do an assessment. Ukrainian officials from the military and security services released a statement saying that the Red Cross and U.N. had acted as guarantors for the life and help of Ukrainian POWs, and they're demanding that they immediately investigate the attack. The Ukrainian side also called it, quote, "a classic false-flag operation" by Russia. A Russian defense ministry spokesman responded to this event by calling it a, quote, "bloody provocation" by Ukraine.

SIMON: Tim, we're six months into this war now, and you know, having been there for a lot of it. What do Russia's strategic aims seem to be at this point? And how likely is it that they'll be able to achieve them?

MAK: Well, you know, Russia's objective in this full-scale invasion appear as broad as ever. On Friday, Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador told the U.N. Security Council that, "quote, the de-Nazification and demilitarization of Ukraine will be carried out in full." But even as Russia's stated goals are as aggressive as they've ever been, there are increasing doubts from Western assessments about whether they'll be able to keep going. In a public forum, the head of Britain's intelligence service recently predicted that Russia's military campaign would likely, quote, "run out of steam."

SIMON: NPR's Tim Mak in Kyiv, thanks so much for being with us.

MAK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA FEAT. BADBADNOTGOOD'S "WEIGHT OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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