Russia Accuses Ukraine of Shooting Down a Military Transport Plane, Killing 65 Ukrainian POWs Aboard

by Braxton Taylor

Russia’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday accused Ukrainian forces of shooting down a military transport plane, killing all 74 people aboard, including 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war being swapped.

Ukrainian officials did not immediately confirm or deny Russia’s claims about the crash in Russia’s Belgorod border region, although they said they were looking into them.

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.

Video of the crash posted on social media 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.

In addition to the 65 POWs, the Il-76 transport carried a crew of six and three other passengers, the Russian military said. According to the statement, Russian radar registered the launch of two missiles from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region that borders the Belgorod region. The ministry did not provide evidence for its claim.

Firefighters, ambulances and police rushed to the site in the Korochansky district of Belgorod, state news agency Tass reported, citing a local emergency services official.

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 Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman, Andrii Yusov, confirmed to media that a prisoner swap was to happen Wednesday but was not going ahead. He said the agency is checking whether Ukrainian POWs were on the plane.

The plane was headed to the Belgorod region from the Chkalovsky air field in the Moscow region, and the POW swap was scheduled to take place at the Kolotilovka crossing on the Russian-Ukrainian border, the statement read. The crossing is about 135 kilometers (85 miles) west of the village of Yablonovo, near where the plane fell.

Ukraine’s Kharkiv region and Russia’s Belgorod region have long been a focus of the fighting, especially involving airstrikes with missiles and drones.

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 that a “missile alert” had been triggered in the region and urged residents to take shelter.

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.

The Russian Defense Ministry said a special military commission was headed to the crash site.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on his call with reporters that he could not comment on the crash because he did not have enough information about it.

The Il-76 is designed to carry up to 225 troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons, according to Russia’s military export agency.

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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