Russia claims the Ilyushin Il-76 military aircraft was carrying 74 people – six crew members, three Russian soldiers and 65 POWs being readied for prisoner exchanges with Ukraine – when it was shot down near the Russian city Belgorod, 40km north of the border with Ukraine, on Wednesday. Regional Russian officials said all onboard the plane had been killed.
But Ukraine said it believed the plane was transporting missiles. The Il-76 is designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It has a normal crew of five people, and can carry up to 90 passengers.
After the Russian military transport plane crashed and exploded early on Wednesday, Russian officials were only able to give Ukraine a list “with great delay” of 65 Ukrainians who Moscow claimed had died late on Friday, said the Ukrainian agency that deals with prisoner exchanges.
The list was also released publicly by Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia’s state propaganda channel RT, but it was quickly noted by independent news outlets that at least some of those named were POWs who had already been released in earlier exchanges.
The relatives of other prisoners named and still missing said they were unable to identify their loved ones in crash site photos provided by the Russian authorities, according to Ukraine’s Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
Kyiv does not have any verifiable information about who was on the plane, Ukrainian Lt Col Kyrylo Budanov said.
“We currently don’t have evidence that there could have been that many people onboard the aircraft. Russian propaganda’s claim that the IL-76 aircraft was transporting 65 Ukrainian POWs (heading) for a prisoner swap continues to raise a lot of questions,” he said.
Officials in Ukraine confirmed a prisoner swap was expected to take place on Wednesday but said it was called off after the plane crash in Belgorod. Ukrainian military intelligence officials said Moscow had not asked for any arrangements to be made such as securing a specific part of the airspace for a certain period of time in the past prisoner exchanges.
The International Committee of the Red Cross’s spokesperson in Ukraine has asked Russia to return the bodies of any POWs who might have died in the plane crash, reiterating requests made by Kyiv.
Oleksandr Vlasenko, a media officer for the Red Cross, said “very little time” passed between the initial reports of the crash and Moscow declaring it was ready to return the bodies of the Ukrainian POWs.
He explained that while Ukraine and Russia regularly exchange the bodies of dead soldiers, each trade has required considerable preparation.
While Russia has accused Ukraine of shooting the plane down with missiles, Kyiv has neither confirmed nor denied that its forces downed a Russian military transport plane that day.
Volodymyr Zelensky has called for an international investigation into the crash, saying that the crash site is only accessible to Russia.
“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,” Mr Zelensky said on Wednesday in his evening address.
The Ukrainian war-time president said the facts concerning the downed plane had yet to be ascertained.