Russia on Wednesday accused Ukraine of shooting down a Russian military transport plane with 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers onboard to a prisoner exchange in what it called a barbaric act of terrorism that has killed a total of 74 people.
The Russian defence ministry said that six Russian crew members and three Russian soldiers were also on the Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane which was shot down near the Russian city of Belgorod near the Ukrainian border.
A statement from the ministry read, “The Ukrainian leadership was well aware that, in accordance with established practice, Ukrainian servicemen would be transported by military transport aircraft to the Belgorod airfield today to be exchanged.”
“According to an earlier agreement, this event was to take place in the afternoon at the Kolotilovka checkpoint on the Russian-Ukrainian border. By committing this terrorist act, the Ukrainian leadership has showed its true face. It disregarded the lives of its own citizens,” it added.
The Russian foreign ministry called the shooting down of the plane “a barbaric act”.
Ukrainian presidential adviser in Mykhailo Podolyak was quoted by Reuters as saying, “Comments will come a little later. Time is needed to clarify all the data.”
A video of the incident posted on Telegram by Baza, a channel linked to Russian security services, and verified by Reuters showed a large aircraft falling towards the ground near the Yablonovo village in the Belgorod region and exploding in a vast fireball.
Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence spokesperson Andriy Yusov told the Radio Svoboda outlet that a prisoner exchange had been scheduled for Wednesday, adding that it will not be taking place at the moment.
Ukrainska Pravda, a Ukrainian media outlet initially cited a military source as saying Kyiv had shot down the plane because it was carrying S-300 missiles, however, later corrected the story saying the information had not been confirmed by other sources.
Meanwhile, Andrei Kartapolov, a lawmaker in the Russian parliament and a retired general said in an interview on TV that it was impossible for the operators of Ukrainian surface-to-air missile systems to mistake transport planes for military planes or helicopters as targets.
Kartapolov said, “It was done deliberately to sabotage the prisoner exchange,” adding that a second Russian Il-76 transport plane carrying around 80 Ukrainian soldiers to the point of exchange had managed to turn around.
The Russian defence ministry has said that its radar operators detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles at the time the plane was downed. Kartapolov said that the plane had been downed by three missiles of either US or German-build. He said that it had not been escorted by Russian fighter planes because the flight had been agreed with the Ukrainians.
If confirmed, this would stand to be the deadliest such incident inside Russia’s internationally recognized borders during the almost two-year-old war.
Although Reuters could not immediately verify the people on board the downed plane, Moscow and Kyiv have regularly exchanged prisoners since Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine began in February 2022.
The Russian state media has published a list of names of the 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers it said were on board along with their date of births.
Meanwhile, the governor of Belgorod, Vyacheslav Gladkov said that all 74 people on board the plane had been killed and the plane had come down in the region’s Korochansky district, northeast of Belgorod. He said investigators and emergency workers were already at the scene.
Belgorod, which borders Ukraine, has regularly come under attack from Ukraine in the recent months, including a December missile strike which claimed the lives of 25 people.
The chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin said that the chanber would appeal to the US Congress and the German parliament “so their lawmakers at last can see clearly who they are financing, who they are helping.”
Volodin said, “They (Ukraine) shot down their own soldiers in mid-air. Their mothers, wives and children were waiting for them. They took a decision and shot down our defenceless pilots on a military transport plane, who were carrying out a humanitarian mission, with American and German rockets.”
The Il-76 is a military transport aircraft designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It usually has a crew of five and has the capacity of carrying up to 90 passengers. Kremlin said in a response that it was looking into the situation.