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Russia claims Ukraine shot down a military plane carrying Ukrainian POWs, killing 74

Traffic police officers block off a road near the crash site of the Russian Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane outside the village of Yablonovo in Russia's Belgorod region on Wednesday.
Traffic police officers block off a road near the crash site of the Russian Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane outside the village of Yablonovo in Russia's Belgorod region on Wednesday.

Updated January 24, 2024 at 5:09 PM ET

MOSCOW — Russia accused Ukraine of intentionally shooting down a military transport plane on Wednesday — killing all 74 people on board, the majority of whom were Ukrainian POWs en route to a negotiated prisoner swap between Moscow and Kyiv.

According to Russia's Defense Ministry, the Il-76 transport plane was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners to the prisoner exchange when it crashed in the Belgorod region near Ukraine's border just after 11:00 a.m. local time (3:00 a.m. EST) Wednesday, due to a "terrorist act."

Six Russian crew members and three other passengers were also aboard the aircraft. All were killed, according to local authorities.

Several hours later, the ministry said Russian radars had detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles shortly before the plane went down — and accused Kyiv of attempting to pin blame for the incident on Moscow in a false flag-style operation.

"The Ukrainian leadership perfectly knew that, according to established practices, Ukrainian servicemen would be transported by military transport aircraft to the Belgorod airfield for an exchange," said the ministry in a statement.

"By committing this terrorist act, the Ukrainian leadership has shown its true face — and disregarded the lives of its own citizens," the ministry said.

In his nightly video address, posted to social media, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he had summoned the head of the armed forces as well as the defense minister and the head of military intelligence to establish what happened. He said that Ukraine will insist on an international investigation, and suggested foul play by Russia.

"It is obvious that the Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, with the feelings of their relatives and with the emotions of our society," Zelenskyy said.

Video posted to a pro-Kremlin social media channel appeared to capture the aircraft's final moments — descending at a sharp incline toward the earth before exploding in a massive fireball.

Vyacheslav Gladkov, Russia's local governor in Belgorod, had warned of a potential rocket attack by Ukraine in the minutes before the incident.

The region has come under frequent attacks from Ukraine in recent months, including a rocket attack in December that killed more than two dozen people.

The Ukrainska Pravda media outlet in Ukraine initially reported that Ukrainian military sources confirmed downing a Russian military transport using Soviet-era S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. The newspaper later updated the story to say the shoot-down had not been confirmed by other sources.

A representative of Ukraine's main intelligence directorate, Andriy Yusov, told Radio Liberty that a prisoner exchange planned for Wednesday "is not taking place at the moment."

Some Ukrainian authorities, including Dmytro Lubinets, the ombudsman for human rights, who is involved in prisoner exchanges, suggested the Russian reports were propaganda aimed at destabilizing Ukrainian society.

Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Russian state RT news service and a key Kremlin propagandist, later published a list of Ukrainian prisoners she insisted had been killed in the crash. The list's authenticity could not be independently confirmed.

Despite nearly two years of war and untold carnage, prisoner exchanges remain one of the few areas of compromise between Ukraine and Russia.

Just after the New Year, Kyiv and Moscow released more than 200 prisoners each in what was touted as the largest swap since the start of the conflict.

NPR's Joanna Kakissis reported from Kyiv. NPR producers Polina Lytvynova and Hanna Palamarenko also contributed reporting from Kyiv.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.