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Russian military plane crashes carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war, says Moscow

Russia’s Defence Ministry blames the crash on Kyiv, saying the plane went down near border with Ukraine and was carrying 65 PoWs who were due to be exchanged

Chris Stevenson,Tom Watling
Thursday 25 January 2024 10:43 GMT
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Moment Russian plane carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war appears to crash

A Russian military transport plane has crashed in a region bordering Ukraine, with Russian officials saying that all 74 people on board – including 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war – were killed.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said that the Ilyushin Il-76 was taking part in a prisoner exchange. The ministry added there were also six crew and three Russian servicemen on the flight.

The Defence Ministry sought to blame Kyiv for the crash, claiming that two missiles had been detected by Russian radar before the plane went down.

Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied that it hit the plane but said Moscow had created a “deliberate threat to the life and safety” of its PoWs by failing to warn Kyiv to deconflict the airspace before the swap. Ukrainian military intelligence said it did not have “reliable and comprehensive” information about who or what was onboard.

Video posted on the Telegram messenger app by Baza, a channel linked to Russian security services, showed a large aircraft falling towards the ground and exploding in a vast fireball.

Andrei Kartapolov, a member of Russia’s parliament and a retired general, told the Shot news outlet it was impossible for operators of Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems to mistake transport planes for military planes or helicopters as targets.

"It was done deliberately to sabotage the prisoner exchange," said Mr Kartapolov, saying a second Russian Il-76 transport plane carrying around 80 Ukrainian soldiers to the exchange had managed to turn around. Mr Kartapolov, who has close links to the Russian Defence Ministry, said the plane had been downed by three missiles of either US or German manufacture.

The Russian Defence Ministry said that a prisoner exchange had been due to take place on Wednesday afternoon at a border checkpoint about 96km (60 miles) to the west of the city of Belgorod, it added. Ukraine and Russia have taken part in a number of prisoner exchanges since the start of Russia’s invasion. The most recent one, brokered by the United Arab Emirates, took place this month and was the biggest to date, with 230 Ukrainian PoWs returning home and 248 Russians released. It was the first in almost five months and 49th since the war began.

Ukrainian military intelluigence confrimed plans for the swap, and said that it had fulfilled its side of the deal by getting the Russian personnel to the exchange point safely. “According to the agreement, the Russian side had to ensure the safety of our defenders,” it said a statement. “The Ukrainian side was not informed about the need to ensure the safety of the airspace around ​​the city of Belgorod for a certain period of time, as was repeatedly done in the past.”

Ukraine’s military intelligence also said it had not been informed about what means of transport would be used to facilitate the swap and which routes. “On this basis, we may be talking about planned and deliberate actions by Russia to destabilise the situation in Ukraine and weaken international support for our state,” it added in a statement on Telegram.

Other video footage shared on social media showed a plane going down near the village of Yablonovo, not far from the Ukraine border, followed by an explosion, at around 1100 local time (0800 GMT). Authorities were investigating the cause of the crash, and a special military commission was on the way to the crash site, the Russian Defence Ministry said. Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said that all persons on board the plane have died.

Emergency services near the site of the crash on Wednesday (Reuters)

Media in Kyiv cited sources within the Ukrainian military as saying that the plane had been carrying S-300 missiles intended for an attack on the nearby Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. The Ukrainskaya Pravda website initially reported that the aircraft had been brought down by the Ukrainian armed forces but later revised its article to remove the reference.

Later, Ukraine’s military accused the Russian army of using military transport planes to deliver missiles to the to the Belgorod region to perform cross-border attacks in recent weeks, something it linked to Russian missile strikes on Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv.

“With this in mind, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery and exercise airspace control to eliminate the terrorist threat, including in the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction,” it said on Telegram.

The Belgorod region has come under frequent attack from Ukraine in recent months, including a December missile strike which killed 25 people.

Earlier on Wednesday, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said a major Russian missile attack that apparently was devised to overwhelm Ukraine’s air defences had killed 18 people and injured 130. Ukraine is marking the 700th day since the full-scale invasion by Kremlin’s forces started.

The barrage employing more than 40 missiles early on Tuesday damaged 130 residential buildings in three Ukrainian cities, “all ordinary houses”, Mr Zelensky said on X, formerly Twitter.

Russian state media published a list of names of the 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers it said were on board along with their dates of birth. The list could not be verified.

Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the body in charge of PoW exchanges, said they are “collecting and analysing all necessary information” about the crash.

“We emphasise that the enemy is actively conducting information special operations against Ukraine aimed at destabilising Ukrainian society,” it said in a statement on Telegram.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia has called for an emergency UN Security Council session late on Wednesday to discuss the crash. A French spokesperson at the UN said the meeting would be held at on Thursday evening.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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