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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Military plane crashes in Russia, Killing all on board, Moscow says

In this handout photo taken from validated UGC video show flames rising from the scene of a warplane crashed at a residential area near Yablonovo, Belgorod region, Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2024. Russia says a military transport plane that was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war has crashed in a Russian region near Ukraine. (CNN footage)

By Ivan Nechepurenko and Andrew E. Kramer

A large Russian military transport plane crashed Wednesday near the border with Ukraine killing everyone onboard, the Russian defense ministry said, accusing Ukraine of shooting down the plane with missiles.

The ministry said in a statement that the plane had been carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war who were being transferred to the Belgorod region to be exchanged for Russian service personnel. It accused Ukrainian forces of launching two missiles from the nearby Kharkiv region of Ukraine that struck the aircraft. The plane was also carrying six crew members and three other individuals, the ministry said.

The Russian claims could not be independently verified.

Ukrainian officials did not comment directly on Moscow’s accusations that Ukraine shot down the plane, or its claims that Ukrainian prisoners of war died in the crash. The military’s general staff headquarters issued a statement Wednesday afternoon asserting a right to target Russian military transport airplanes in the border region.

But later Wednesday, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency hinted at what could have been a tragic mistake, saying that Russia had not informed it that prisoners would be flown to Belgorod’s airport, as was the case in previous exchanges. The airport is within range of Ukrainian drones and missiles.

Ukraine acknowledged, though, that a prisoner exchange was planned for the day, raising questions about whether it should have assumed that prisoners would be transported into the region.

If Ukraine did shoot down a plane with its own soldiers onboard, even unwittingly, it would be painful setback at a difficult time for its war effort, which is severely challenged by ammunition and personnel shortages and fears that Western support is eroding.

The general staff statement did not deny shooting down the transport plane. Instead, it emphasized how essential it was for Ukraine to strike in Russian territory. It said that repeated Russian missile strikes on the city of Kharkiv and the surrounding region had in the past week killed 16 people and wounded another 78 and that Ukraine had responded by targeting missile launch sites and the logistics for missile deliveries.

“The armed forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy delivery vehicles and control the airspace to eliminate the terrorist threat,” the statement said.

The Belgorod region of Russia has a long border with Ukraine, and hostilities have flared in the area for much of the war. Over the past few weeks, it has been the scene of frequent Ukrainian missile and drone strikes, including a bombardment in December. It was also the staging ground for Moscow’s full-scale invasion in 2022 and for further Russian strikes against Ukrainian territory during the war.

The governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said in a statement on social media that the plane, which embarked from a military airport near Moscow, had crashed in a field near a settlement in the Korochansky district. He said that emergency services were at the site and were investigating.

A video posted to Telegram and verified by The New York Times showed a large plane crashing and exploding in Yablonovo, a town in the Korochansky district. Tass, a Russian state news agency, published a video of the scene of the crash showing debris littering a snowy field.

The Russian defense ministry said in its statement that Ukraine’s leadership was “well aware that, in accordance with established practice, Ukrainian servicemen were to be transported by military transport aircraft to Belgorod airfield today for exchange.”

“According to an earlier agreement, the event was to take place in the afternoon” at a checkpoint on the Russia-Ukraine border, the statement added.

Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said an exchange “was supposed to take place today but did not.” Ukraine, it said, had upheld its side of the agreement by transporting Russian prisoners safely to the border.

The agency said it had no information about passengers on the plane but that “the security of our defenders, according to the agreements, was to be ensured by the Russian side.” That Russia had not informed Ukraine that prisoners were aboard the plane, the statement said, might be “planned and deliberate actions for the Russian Federation to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and weaken international support.”

The plane, an Il-76, was designed decades ago in the Soviet Union to perform military duties such as airlifting troops, cargo and weapons.

Former Ukrainian prisoners who were released in exchanges said that they had been transported on that model of airplane, said Olha Reshetylova, a coordinator for Media Initiative for Human Rights, a group that investigates potential Russian war crimes against prisoners of war. In an interview, she called for an investigation into the crash but said that those efforts would be “complicated by the fact that the crime took place on the territory” of Russia.

One former Ukrainian prisoner of war, Maksym Kolesnikov, confirmed in a social media post that prisoners were transported on military cargo planes but questioned the Russian assertion that only three guards escorted 65 prisoners. On his flight, he said, about 20 guards flew with 50 prisoners.

Andrei V. Kartapolov, a Russian lawmaker and retired general, said at a session of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, that the Il-76 had been shot down by three Ukrainian missiles. He did not provide any evidence for his claim, and it could not be independently verified. Wednesday afternoon, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Russia had requested a meeting of the U.N. Security Council over the episode.

Russia and Ukraine have been exchanging prisoners since the start of the war through deals brokered by a third party, such as Turkey or the United Arab Emirates. Those deals have been very complicated, with the sides meticulously negotiating every detail.

In early January, after a long pause in exchanges, Russia and Ukraine conducted the largest swap of prisoners since the start of the war.

Prisoner exchanges are politically sensitive in Ukraine and the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that it goes to great lengths to negotiate releases. Families, some of whom have waited for months with little information about loved ones in captivity, have held street protests in Kyiv, the capital. Ukrainian authorities typically do not disclose, even to families, the names of those to be released before exchanges.

The crash Wednesday comes as the fighting along the front line in southeastern Ukraine has bogged down into a vicious but mostly stationary battle in trenches.

Military assistance for Ukraine has been cast in doubt as the U.S. Congress delays a vote on aid. Front-line commanders have said that artillery ammunition is running low, and the country is preparing for a mobilization that will most likely prove unpopular domestically.

With prospects for advances on the ground uncertain, Ukraine has turned to long-range strikes with drones and sabotage operations inside Russia that target military and fuel infrastructure. The tactics have included sabotage and commando raids near the border, including in the Belgorod region.

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