Russian military plane 'carrying 65 Ukrainian PoWs' crashes near border in Belgorod

Video appears to show an explosion after the plane crash (Evening Standard)
Video appears to show an explosion after the plane crash (Evening Standard)

A Russian Ilyushin Il-76 military transport plane has crashed in Russia's Belgorod region killing all 74 people on board, Moscow has claimed.

The Russian Ministry of Defence said the plane was carrying 65 captured Ukrainian military personnel, a claim a Ukraine official has disputed, when it crashed around 11am local time (8am in the UK) on Wednesday.

Russian state media said that along with the prisoners, who were reportedly being transported to the border region for a prisoner exchange, the plane had been carrying six Russian crew members and three guards.

All those on board were killed, according to governor Vyacheslav Gladkov of the Belgorod region. He did not specify how many people were on the plane, or who they were.

Russia has accused Ukraine of deliberately shooting down the plane.

Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda initially cited military sources as saying Kyiv had shot down the plane because it was carrying S-300 missiles, but later corrected the story saying that information had not been confirmed by other sources.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior ministry, said Moscow’s claims that the aircraft was carrying Ukrainian PoWs rather than missiles was an attempt by the Russian defence ministry to “save face”.

Some Russian military bloggers questioned why Moscow would use planes to transport Ukrainian PoWs, the Times reported. However such aircraft have been used previously to bring Russian prisoners back from Ukraine as part of exchange deals with Kyiv.

Ukraine's defence ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, said: "Comments will come a little later. Time is needed to clarify all the data.

The cause of the crash, and details of who was on board, have not yet been independently verified.

Video posted on the Telegram messenger app by Baza, a channel linked to Russian security services, showed a large aircraft falling towards the ground in a snowy, rural area and exploding in a vast fireball.

The Il-76 is a military transport aircraft designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It has a normal crew of five people, and can carry up to 90 passengers.Speaking on his morning call with reporters, President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he could not comment on the crash as he did not have enough information about it.

Authorities were investigating the cause of the crash, and a special military commission was on the way to the crash site, the Russian defence ministry said.

Andrei Kartapolov, a member of Russia's State Duma and a retired general, claimed the military transport plane was shot down by three missiles of types the West has supplied to Ukraine.

Video footage appeared to show a huge fireball at the scene
Video footage appeared to show a huge fireball at the scene

Kartapolov did not state the source of his information. He said investigations would reveal whether the missiles were Patriots or IRIS-Ts.

Local governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Wednesday an unspecified "incident" had occurred in the region's Korochansky district, northeast of Belgorod city, and that he was going to inspect the site.

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

Earlier on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said a major Russian missile attack that was apparently devised to overwhelm Ukraine's air defences had killed 18 people and injured 130.

Ukraine is marking the 700th day since the full-scale invasion by Kremlin's forces started.

The barrage employing more than 40 ballistic, cruise, anti-aircraft and guided missiles early on Tuesday hit 130 residential buildings in three Ukrainian cities - "all ordinary houses", Mr Zelensky said on X, formerly Twitter.

Russia's onslaught, which included targets in the capital Kyiv and second-largest city Kharkiv, was the heaviest in weeks and lent weight to Mr Zelensky's appeals for Western allies to provide more military aid.

"This year, the main priority is to strengthen air defense to protect our cities and towns, as well as defend frontline positions," the Ukrainian leader said on X on Tuesday night.

With the 930-mile front line largely static amid icy weather and as both sides seek to replenish their weapons stockpiles, the war recently has focused on long-range strikes.

Analysts say Russia stockpiled missiles to pursue a winter campaign of aerial bombardment, while Ukraine has sought to strike inside Russia with new types of drones.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Moscow is likely trying to acquire more ballistic missiles from foreign countries, including Iran and North Korea, because they may be more effective in some circumstances.

A further barrage of Russian S-300 missiles struck residential districts of Kharkiv late on Tuesday, injuring nine people and damaging residential buildings, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said.

Russia denies its forces strike civilian areas, although there is substantial evidence to the contrary.

The Russian defence ministry said air defences shot down four Ukrainian drones over the Oryol region of western Russia early on Wednesday.

Ukraine's allies have promised to keep sending military aid packages, even though their resources are stretched. Help from the United States, by far Ukraine's single biggest provider, has also hit political snags.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak this month signed a deal pledging the UK would provide £2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine over the next year, to help in its war against Russia.

Meanwhile the German defence ministry aannounced on Wednesday that it plans to send six Sea King Mk41 multi-role helicopters from Bundeswehr stocks to Ukraine.

Since the beginning of the war military deliveries from Germany have amounted to around six billion euro (£5.13 billion), including substantial anti-aircraft and air defence systems, the government said.