MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia accused Ukraine on Wednesday 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.
Ukraine called for full clarification of the circumstances of the incident and did not directly confirm it had shot down the plane.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his evening address said: “It is clear that the Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, the feelings of their loved ones and the emotions of our society.”
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.
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.
Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk accused Russia of trying to undermine international support for Ukraine.
“Ukraine has the right to defend itself and destroy the means of the aggressors’ aerial attack,” he said.
The Russian defence ministry said the exchange was to have taken place on Wednesday afternoon 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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council and said Russia sought to establish “the reasons behind the Ukrainian criminal act”.
A French spokesperson at the U.N. said the meeting would be held at 5 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Thursday.
Ukraine’s GUR 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 in a statement on Telegram.
Russia’s defence ministry said radar operators had detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles at the time of the crash.
If the details are confirmed, it would be the deadliest incident of its kind inside Russia’s internationally recognised borders during the almost two-year-old war.
UKRAINE SAYS PRISONER SWAP WAS SCHEDULED
Ukraine’s intelligence agency confirmed a prisoner swap 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 30-km 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.
It had no reliable information about who was on the downed plane, it added.
Video footage posted on Telegram by Baza, a channel linked to Russian security services, and verified by Reuters, showed a large aircraft falling to the ground near the village of Yablonovo in Belgorod region and exploding in a fireball.
Andrei Kartapolov, a member of Russia’s parliament and a retired general, told the SHOT news outlet it was impossible for 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,” said Kartapolov, saying a second Russian Il-76 transport plane carrying around 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 U.S. or German manufacture.
Reuters could not immediately verify details of who was on board the downed plane, but Moscow and Kyiv have regularly swapped prisoners since Russia began what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine in February 2022.
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.
(Reporting by Moscow buro; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv, Yuliia Dysa in Gdansk and David Brunnstrom and Daphne Pseladakis in Washington; writing by Andrew Osborn; editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Stephen Coates)