Flight Recorders Reportedly Found from Plane that Russia Says Crashed with Ukrainian POWs Aboard

by Braxton Taylor

Investigators have found the flight recorders of a Russian military transport plane that crashed in a border region near Ukraine, Russian media reported Thursday, a day after Moscow accused Kyiv of shooting down the aircraft, which it said was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war.

The Il-76 crashed in a huge ball of fire in a rural area of Russia on Wednesday, and authorities said all 74 people on board, including the POWs, six crew and three Russian servicemen, were killed. Ukraine’s president has demanded an international investigation into the episode, which has triggered a spate of claims and counterclaims.

Russian officials accused Kyiv of shooting down the plane with two missiles and said the prisoners of war were headed for an exchange. They offered no evidence for their allegation.

The Associated Press could not independently confirm who was aboard or how the plane was downed. The commander of Ukraine’s air force accused Russia of “rampant … propaganda” — though he did not specifically address the allegations.

Ukrainian authorities confirmed a prisoner exchange was due to happen Wednesday, and that it was called off, but said they had no information about who was on the plane.

“We haven’t seen any indication that such a large number of people was on that plane, Ukrainian citizens or not,” Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said on national television Thursday.

Ukrainian officials noted that Moscow didn’t ask for any specific airspace to be kept safe for a certain length of time, as it has in past exchanges.

Without mentioning the crash, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that the country would target any Russian military transport plane believed to be delivering missiles, especially near the border.

As the conflict approaches the two-year mark, the 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) front line has been largely static amid a second winter of fighting. With both sides seeking to replenish their weapons stockpiles, the war recently has focused on long-range strikes.

Earlier this month, in a significant blow to the Kremlin’s forces, the Ukrainian air force claimed to have shot down a Russian early warning and control plane that can spot targets up to 650 kilometers (400 miles) away and a key command center aircraft that relays information to troops on the ground.

The discovery of the transport plane’s flight recorders was reported Thursday by the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, citing emergency services.

However, there is slim hope that the circumstances of the crash and the Russian allegations will be clarified. The war has often featured conflicting accusations, used as ammunition in the bid to sway opinion at home and abroad.

On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated the allegation that Ukraine had downed the plane, describing it as “a totally monstrous act.”

Mykola Oleshchuk, Ukraine’s Air Force Commander, alleged that “rampant Russian propaganda is directing a fake stream of information to the international audience, attempting to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the global community.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who turned 46 on Thursday, didn’t directly address Moscow’s allegation but said Ukraine would push for an international investigation.

“It is necessary to establish all the facts, as much as possible, considering that the plane crash occurred on Russian territory — beyond our control,” he said in his nightly video address late Wednesday. “It’s obvious Russians are playing with lives of Ukrainian POWs, with the feelings of their relatives and the emotions of our society.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which was expected to take place on Thursday afternoon in New York.

Andrei Kartapolov, head of the defense affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, said Russia would continue exchanging prisoners despite the crash.

“We can’t abandon our boys and so we will speak to the devil himself to get them out,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s largest oil and gas company, Naftogaz, said Thursday that one of its data centers had come under a large-scale cyberattack that shut down the company’s web sites and call centers.

Ukraine’s national postal service, Ukrposhta, also reported a major technical failure of its IT systems. It didn’t specify whether the issue was caused by a cyberattack.

Ukraine’s State Service for Transport Safety also reported a technical failure of its data center that shut down its website and other services.

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