Ukraine says still no evidence POWs were on board downed Russian plane

Relatives of the unnamed POWs unable to identify their loved ones in crash site photos provided by Russian authorities

Arpan Rai
Monday 29 January 2024 00:01 GMT
Russian military plane ‘possibly’ struck by Ukraine missile as Kyiv doubts prisoners of war claim

Ukrainian officials say Russia has still not provided any credible evidence to confirm that a downed Russian transport plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war.

Russia claims the Ilyushin Il-76 military aircraft was carrying 74 people – six crew members, three Russian soldiers and 65 POWs being readied for prisoner exchanges with Ukraine – when it was shot down near the Russian city Belgorod, 40km north of the border with Ukraine, on Wednesday. Regional Russian officials said all onboard the plane had been killed.

But Ukraine said it believed the plane was transporting missiles. The Il-76 is designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It has a normal crew of five people and can carry up to 90 passengers.

After the Russian military transport plane crashed and exploded early on Wednesday, Russian officials were only able to give Ukraine a list “with great delay”, late on Friday, of the 65 Ukrainians who Moscow claimed had died, said the Ukrainian agency that deals with prisoner exchanges.

The list was also released publicly by Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia’s state propaganda channel RT, but it was quickly noted by independent news outlets that at least some of those named were POWs who had already been released in earlier exchanges.

The relatives of other prisoners named and still missing said they were unable to identify their loved ones in crash site photos provided by the Russian authorities, according to Ukraine’s Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Kyiv does not have any verifiable information about who was on the plane, Ukrainian Lt Col Kyrylo Budanov said.

“We currently don’t have evidence that there could have been that many people onboard the aircraft. Russian propaganda’s claim that the Il-76 aircraft was transporting 65 Ukrainian POWs [heading] for a prisoner swap continues to raise a lot of questions,” he said.

Officials in Ukraine confirmed a prisoner swap was expected to take place on Wednesday but said it was called off after the plane crash in Belgorod. Ukrainian military intelligence officials said Moscow had not asked for any arrangements to be made such as securing a specific part of the airspace for a certain period of time as has happened in the past prisoner exchanges.

The Red Cross’s spokesperson in Ukraine has asked Russia to return the bodies of any POWs who might have died in the plane crash, reiterating requests made by Kyiv.

Alexander Vlasenko, a media officer for the Red Cross, said “very little time” passed between the initial reports of the crash and Moscow declaring it was ready to return the bodies of the Ukrainian POWs.

He explained that while Ukraine and Russia regularly exchange the bodies of dead soldiers, each trade has required considerable preparation.

While Russia has accused Ukraine of shooting the plane down with missiles, Kyiv has neither confirmed nor denied that its forces downed a Russian military transport plane that day.

Volodymyr Zelensky has called for an international investigation into the crash, saying that the site is currently only accessible to Russia.

“It is clear that the Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, the feelings of their loved ones and the emotions of our society,” Mr Zelensky said on Wednesday in his evening address.

The Ukrainian president said the facts concerning the downed plane had yet to be ascertained.

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