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Russia says Ukraine downs its plane, killing 65 POWs

Russian officials say 74 people on an army plane that crashed in the Belgorod region have died.

Russian officials say 74 people on an army plane that crashed in the Belgorod region have died. Photo: AAP

Russia has accused Ukraine of deliberately shooting down a Russian military transport plane carrying 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers to a prisoner exchange in what it called a barbaric act of terrorism that had killed a total of 74 people.

The Russian defence ministry said six Russian crew members and three Russian soldiers had been on the Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane shot down near the Russian city of Belgorod near the Ukrainian border.

Ukraine did not directly confirm it had shot down the plane, nor that Ukrainian prisoners were on board.

But after a long pause the Ukrainian military said it would continue to destroy Russian military transport aircraft it believed were carrying missiles with which to strike Ukraine.

It said it had noticed more Russian military transport aircraft landing in Belgorod, something it linked to Russian missile strikes on Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities.

“With this in mind, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery and exercise airspace control to eliminate the terrorist threat, including in the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction,” it said on Telegram.

The Russian defence ministry said the exchange was to take place on Wednesday afternoon (local time) at the Kolotilovka border checkpoint and Ukraine knew a transport plane carrying captured Ukrainian soldiers was expected at the Belgorod airfield.

“By committing this terrorist act, the Ukrainian leadership has showed its true face. It disregarded the lives of its own citizens,” the ministry said in a statement.

But Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said Ukraine had not been asked to ensure airspace security around Belgorod unlike previous swaps and had not been informed about what means of transport would be used and which routes.

“On this basis, we may be talking about planned and deliberate actions by Russia to destabilise the situation in Ukraine and weaken international support for our state,” GUR said.

Russia’s defence ministry said its radar operators had detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles at the time of the crash.

Russia’s foreign ministry called it “a barbaric act” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an emergency United Nations Security Council session on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s intelligence agency confirmed a prisoner swap with Russia had been planned for Wednesday and said the captured Russian servicemen had been delivered to the agreed exchange point on time and were safe.

“Landing a transport plane in a 30km combat zone cannot be safe and in any case must be discussed by both sides, because otherwise it jeopardises the entire exchange process,” it said.

Video footage posted on the Telegram messaging app by Baza, verified by Reuters, showed a large aircraft falling towards the ground near the village of Yablonovo in the Belgorod region and exploding in a vast fireball.

Andrei Kartapolov, an MP in Russia’s parliament and a retired general, said in a TV interview with the SHOT outlet 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.

“It was done deliberately to sabotage the prisoner exchange,” Kartapolov said, adding a second Russian Il-76 transport plane carrying about 80 Ukrainian soldiers to the exchange had managed to turn around.

Kartapolov, who has close links to the Russian defence ministry, said the plane had been downed by three missiles of either US or German manufacture.

Reuters could not immediately verify details of who was on board the downed plane but Russia and Ukraine have regularly swapped prisoners since Russia began what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine in February 2022.

Russian state media published a list of names of the 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers it said were on board along with their dates of birth.

The Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, has come under frequent attack from Ukraine in recent months, including a December missile strike which killed 25 people.

Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of Russian parliament, condemned Ukraine.

“They (Ukraine) shot down their own soldiers in mid-air. Their mothers, wives and children were waiting for them.”

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