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Military plane reportedly transporting over 60 Ukrainian POWs crashes in Russia’s Belgorod region

Source: Meduza

An Il-76 military transport aircraft crashed in the Korochansky District of Russia’s Belgorod region near the Ukrainian border on Wednesday at around noon local time, according to multiple Telegram channels. According to the channel 112, there were 63 people on board. Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov confirmed that all of the passengers were killed in the crash.

The Telegram channel Baza reported that the first bodies of those killed in the plane crash were found one and a half to two kilometers (about a mile) from the crash site.

The Russian Defense Ministry reported that the plane was transporting 65 Ukrainian POWs to the Belgorod region for a prisoner exchange, as well as six crew members and three escorts, according to state media.

Andriy Yusov, the spokesman for Ukraine's Main Intelligence Directorate, has confirmed that a prisoner exchange was planned for today. Yusov added that Russia’s claims that prisoners could have been on the plane are currently being verified.

A source in Ukraine familiar with the exchange process also confirmed to Meduza that an exchange had been planned for today. “However, there is currently no information about POWs being on the plane,” they said, stressing the need to wait for reports from official Ukrainian sources. They did not say how many prisoners were to be exchanged.

Ukraine’s POW Coordination Headquarters has neither confirmed nor denied the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim that the Il-76 contained Ukrainian POWs. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry previously told Ukrainian outlet Suspilne that it was “still clarifying information” about the incident.

The cause of the crash is unclear. The newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, citing a source from the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU), initially reported that the crash was “the work” of Ukraine’s military and that the aircraft was transporting S-300 missiles. It soon updated its report, which now says that an AFU source has confirmed the news of the crash and that sources in the Ukrainian General Staff “claim that the plane was carrying missiles for an S-300 missile system,” but no longer mentions the phrase “the work of the AFU.”

Russian senator and former Commander-in-Chief of Russian’s Aerospace Forces Viktor Bondarev said that the aircraft’s crew managed to report an external impact before the crash. “It’s 100% clear that the plane was shot down,” he added.

Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Dmytro Lubinets wrote on Telegram that he’s still “clarifying information” about the crash. “I call on members of the media and Ukrainian citizens to refrain from drawing premature conclusions and to only trust official sources,” he said.

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The Telegram channel 112 published photos from the crash site, which occurred near the village of Yablonovo, according to a church rector there. “Nothing in the village was damaged. The plane crashed outside of the village, in a field about five or six kilometers away,” he told state media.

Video from the crash site

The Telegram channels Shot and Mash have reported that Russia and Ukraine planned to conduct a prisoner exchange on Wednesday in which 192 POWs would be released from each side.

An hour before the plane crash was first reported, the Belgorod authorities issued an alert warning residents of a possible incoming missile. Approximately 30 minutes later (11:43 a.m. Moscow time), the governor cancelled the alert.

Andrey Kartapolov, the head of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee, said that another Il-76 aircraft carrying around 80 Ukrainian POWs was also flying to Belgorod. “They managed to turn around,” he said. “Ukraine’s leadership was well aware of the planned exchange and was informed of how the prisoners would be delivered. However, the Il-76 aircraft was shot down by three anti-aircraft missiles, from either a Patriot or IRIS-T anti-aircraft missile system.”

Kartapolov also suggested that prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine will be suspended. “Now all talk of exchanges is off the table,” he told the channel Shot. He also claimed that the AFU intentionally shot down the plane in order to blame Russia, saying: “They knew perfectly well what this plane was and where it was going.”

The Kremlin has not officially commented on the crash. “This is fairly new, fresh information. We’re going to look into it. I can’t say anything at the moment,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, told Meduza that “the office would comment later, after all the data is clarified.”

Several hours after the crash, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine issued an official statement. In it, the department notes that missile strikes on Ukraine’s Kharkiv region have recently increased and says that this fact is “directly related to a higher number of military transport aircraft heading to Belgorod Airport.” “Taking this into account, the Ukrainian Armed Forces will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery and airspace control in order to eliminate the terrorist threat,” the statement reads. There is no direct mention of the crash itself.

Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR) made its first official statement, saying that Ukraine fulfilled all its commitments on its part of a planned prisoner exchange and that Russian prisoners of war were delivered to the agreed location on time for the exchange.

The GUR said that the Russian side was responsible for guaranteeing the safety of the Ukrainian POWs:

The Ukrainian side was not made aware about the need to ensure the security of the airspace near the city of Belgorod during a specific period of time, as was repeatedly done in the past. Ukraine was not informed about the number of transport means, routes, and the way the prisoners would be delivered. This may indicate deliberate Russian actions aimed at endangering the lives and safety of the POWs.

The GUR added that landing a plane a few dozen kilometers from the war zone could not be safe and “must be discussed by both sides no matter what.” The agency did not comment as to who was responsible for shooting down the plane.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an emergency U.N. security council meeting, reports Russian state news agency Interfax.

The Russian side “very much expects that the French presidency [of the U.N. security council] will fulfill its responsibilities in good faith and schedule such a meeting as soon as possible.” According to Lavrov, if the meeting is scheduled, it would take place at 3:00 p.m. New York time. Lavrov repeated the Russian military’s previous statements, claiming that the downed aircraft was carrying 65 Ukrainian POWs for a planned prisoner exchange.

“Instead of this exchange taking place, the Ukrainian side launched an anti-aircraft missile strike on this plane from a district in the Kharkiv region, which was fatal,” Lavrov said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently meeting with his Chadian counterpart Mahamat Déby. According to TASS, Déby expressed his condolences on the crash; however, the outlet did not report Putin’s response.

Photos from the crash site

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