February 22nd, 2024

Russia says plane with Ukrainian POWs crashes, killing all aboard, and accuses Kyiv of downing it

By The Associated Press on January 24, 2024.

MOSCOW – A Russian military transport plane crashed Wednesday in a border region near Ukraine, and Moscow accused Kyiv of shooting it down, saying all 74 people aboard were killed, including 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war headed for a swap. Russia offered no evidence and Ukraine did not immediately confirm or deny it.

Video of the crash on social media from the Belgorod border region of Russia showed a plane falling from the sky in a snowy, rural area, and a massive ball of fire erupting where it apparently hit the ground.

The Associated Press could not confirm who was aboard or other details on what brought the plane down. Throughout the 700-day war, Russia and Ukraine have traded conflicting accusations, and establishing the facts has often been difficult, both because of the constraints of a war zone and because each side tightly controls information.

In a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry said the Il-76 transport plane was carrying 65 POWs, a crew of six and three Russian servicemen. It said Russian radar registered the launch of two missiles from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region that borders Belgorod.

“We’ve seen the reports, but we’re not in any position to confirm them,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Separately, a U.S. official said it’s not clear that there were actually Ukrainian POWs aboard the aircraft that crashed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details that have not been announced publicly.

Hours after the crash, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine made no mention of the crash in a statement. But it added that Ukraine targets Russian military transport planes believed to be delivering missiles, especially near the border.

Russia lost two warplanes and two helicopters in its own airspace in one day in May 2023. Kyiv officials initially denied involvement but later said they had used Patriot missiles to hit the aircraft.

The Kharkiv and Belgorod regions have long been a focus of the fighting between the neighbors, including airstrikes with missiles and drones.

First responders rushed to the crash site in the Korochansky district of Belgorod, state news agency Tass reported, citing an emergency services official. The Defense Ministry in Moscow said a military commission was headed to the scene.

The Russian military said the POWs were being flown to the region for a prisoner swap when the plane was downed at 11:15 a.m. local time (0815 GMT; 3:15 a.m. EST). The Il-76 is designed to carry up to 225 troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons, according to Russia’s military export agency.

Ukrainian military intelligence confirmed a swap was due to take place but said it had no information about who was on the crashed Russian plane. Moscow did not ask for specific airspace to be kept safe for a certain length of time, as has happened in past exchanges, it said in a statement.

Russian officials and lawmakers expressed outrage and questioned whether there should be further prisoner swaps. The most recent one, b rokered 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 the 49th of the war.

Russia has largely ensured its air dominance during the war against Ukraine’s fleet of Soviet-era warplanes. But Russia has suffered a series of crashes that some observers have attributed to a higher number of flights amid the fighting in Ukraine.

At the same time, Kyiv has boasted of shooting down two Russian command and control planes, which would be a major feat for Ukraine if true. Cross-border attacks on Russia’s Belgorod region also have increased, with the deadliest one killing 25 people in December.

Shortly before the crash, Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said on his Telegram channel a “missile alert” had been triggered in the region.

Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said it was looking into the crash but did not immediately provide any information. Instead, it cautioned against sharing “unverified information.”

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

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in the morning that he could not comment on the crash because he didn’t have enough information about it. There was no comment from the Kremlin later in the day.

The war’s 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) front line has been largely static amid a second winter of fighting. As both sides seek to replenish their weapons stockpiles, the war recently has focused on long-range strikes.

Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said a major Russian missile attack on Tuesday had killed 18 people and injured 130.

The barrage, employing more than 40 ballistic, cruise, anti-aircraft and guided missiles hit 130 residential buildings in three Ukrainian cities, “all ordinary houses,” Zelenskyy said on X, formerly Twitter.

Russia’s onslaught, which included targets in Kyiv and the second-largest city of Kharkiv, was the heaviest in weeks and lent weight to Zelenskyy’s appeals for Western allies to provide more military aid.

“This year, the main priority is to strengthen air defense to protect our cities and towns, as well as defend front-line positions,” Zelenskyy posted Tuesday.

Analysts say Russia has stockpiled missiles to pursue a winter of aerial bombardment, while Ukraine has sought to strike inside Russia with new types of drones.

Russia may have employed decoy missiles in Tuesday’s attack in an effort to open up holes in Ukraine’s air defenses, a U.S. think tank said.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Moscow is likely trying to acquire more ballistic missiles from foreign countries, including Iran and North Korea, because they may be more effective in some circumstances.

A further barrage of Russian S-300 missiles struck residential districts of Kharkiv late Tuesday, injuring nine people and damaging residential buildings, regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said.

Russia denies its forces strike civilian areas, although there is substantial evidence to the contrary.

Also on Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said its air defenses shot down four Ukrainian drones in the Oryol region of western Russia. Oryol Mayor Yuri Parakhin said that several drones were downed over the city with no casualties.

Another Ukrainian drone was downed early Wednesday over the Belgorod border region, according to Gladkov. He said there were no casualties or damage.

Ukraine’s allies have promised more military aid even though their resources are stretched. Help from the United States, by far Ukraine’s single biggest provider, has also hit political snags.

The German Defense Ministry said Wednesday it plans to send six Sea King Mk41 helicopters to Ukraine.

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Pentagon correspondent Tara Copp contributed from Washington.

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This story has been updated to correct that Zelenskyy spoke about the missile strike death toll late Tuesday, not Wednesday.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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