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A Russian military transport plane carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war crashed near the border with Ukraine on Wednesday morning, killing all 74 people on board, according to Russian authorities.
The defence ministry said the Il-76 plane was transporting 65 Ukrainian soldiers from Moscow to Belgorod region — the Russian province that has faced the most spillover from President Vladimir Putin’s nearly two-year invasion — for a prisoner exchange.
Six crew members and three Russian service personnel accompanying the prisoners were also among the passengers, according to the defence ministry.
Without providing evidence, the ministry accused Ukraine of shooting down the plane to sabotage a previously agreed prisoner exchange scheduled for later on Wednesday “with the goal of accusing Russia of eliminating Ukrainian soldiers”.
Video posted on social media app Telegram showed a plane banking sharply near a village before bursting into a large ball of flame as it hit the ground.
Trails from what appeared to be anti-aircraft fire were visible in the sky behind it, while the plane appeared to be on fire before it hit the ground.
There was no immediate independent confirmation of who was on board or how the crash occurred. Two senior Ukrainian officials told the Financial Times on Wednesday that Kyiv was investigating the downing and would provide more information later.
Andriy Yusov of Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service in Kyiv that a prisoner exchange had been scheduled for Wednesday but was suspended following the plane crash. When contacted by the FT, Yusov did not confirm that Kyiv had shot down the plane with its air defences and declined to comment until his office could verify the details of the incident.
Almost all prisoner swaps between the warring sides are carried out at a small border crossing connecting the Russian village of Kolotilovka, in Belgorod region, and the village of Pokrovka, in Ukraine’s Sumy region. The plane crashed about 150km east of the border crossing.
Ukraine and Russia conducted the largest swap of prisoners on January 3, when 230 Ukrainians were released in exchange for 248 Russians, according to each country’s defence officials. It was the first exchange of prisoners since August, due to what Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described as Russia-related reasons. In December, he said negotiations with Moscow over the exchanges were “complicated”.
Margarita Simonyan, editor of Russian foreign propaganda network RT, published what she said was a list of the 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on board the plane.
The Ukrainian state body responsible for prisoners of war urged caution over “enemy propaganda resources about the crash”.
Ukrainian media initially reported, citing anonymous sources, that Kyiv’s armed forces had shot the plane down and claimed it was carrying missiles used for air strikes against Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, which borders Belgorod. Some of them later deleted posts with those claims.
Anatoly Kartapolov, chair of the defence committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said another Il-76 carrying 80 Ukrainian prisoners of war had been following closely behind, but was safely diverted from the area.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, the regional governor, said investigators and emergency workers were at the scene near the village of Yablonovo.