President Zelensky has called for an international investigation into the downing of a Russian military transport plane on Wednesday, as Moscow and Kyiv traded accusations over the circumstances of the incident.
Remind me, what happened yesterday?
According to the region’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, the crash occurred around 10 a.m. Kyiv time (8:00 a.m. GMT) in the Korochansky district, northeast of the Belgorod region’s capital.
Maria Mexentseva, a resident of nearby Yablonovo, told Russian state media: “The plane crashed far away from the village. It was very loud and very scary.
“We just heard a loud rumble. There was already smoke, fire and rumbling.”
What downed the plane?
That is still up for debate but a Ukrainian media outlet initially reported that the Ukrainian military had claimed responsibility and the plane had been carrying S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.
However, this claim was later retracted.
What has Russia claimed?
It also claimed Ukrainian forces stationed in the Kharkiv border region had fired two missiles at the transport aircraft, describing it as a “terrorist act.”
Footage and Images from the Crash Site of the Russian Il-76 Transport Aircraft in the Belgorod Region of Western Russia strangely show No Bodies despite claims made by the Russian Ministry of Defense that 74 Individuals including 65 Ukrainians POWs were Killed in the Crash. pic.twitter.com/kK7Y2wTB8k— OSINTdefender (@sentdefender) January 24, 2024
It added that the crash had come hours ahead of the planned prisoner exchange at a border crossing in Belgorod.
“The Ukrainian leadership was well aware that, in accordance with established practice, the Ukrainian servicemen to be exchanged would be transported by military transport aircraft to the Belgorod aerodrome today,” it said.
On Thursday the Kremlin described the incident as a "monstrous act", adding: "No-one can say what impact this will have" on extending a prisoner exchange programme.
Russia’s claims could not be verified and later on Wednesday the head of Russian-state broadcaster RT published a list of captured Ukrainian servicemen allegedly on board.
But an analysis by Novaya Gazeta found only 13 names on the list could currently be verified as real Ukrainian POWs while at least one had already been traded back to Ukraine earlier this month.
Analyzing a list from RT chief Margo Simonyan naming the Ukrainian POWs allegedly killed today aboard the military transport plane crashed in Belgorod, Novaya Gazeta journalists say they’ve confirmed that at least 13 are real POWs. At least one was traded back to Ukraine on Jan.…— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) January 24, 2024
What has Ukraine said?
Kyiv confirmed a prisoner swap was due to occur on Wednesday but said the identities of those aboard the downed plane was yet to be established.
“We currently do not have reliable or comprehensive information on who was on board the plane or in what number,” Ukraine's main intelligence agency said in a statement.
President Zelensky in an evening address, did not confirm or deny Moscow's accusations, but stressed that Russia was “playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, with the feelings of their relatives and with the emotions of our society.”
“We need to establish all clear facts, as much as possible given that the plane crash occurred on Russian territory – beyond our control,” he said.
On Thursday, Ukraine said it had asked the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect the site where Moscow claimed the plane crashed.
"I will ask that representatives of these organisations join the inspection of the scene," Ukraine's rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said in a statement.
Also on Thursday, Ukraine's SBU security service opened a criminal probe into the incident, saying in a statement: "The security service of Ukraine has opened a criminal investigation into the downing of an IL-76 Russian Air Force plane in the Belgorod region."
So, what do we know for certain?
Right now, not much but Western analysts cautioned against accepting the Russian version of events at face value.
Keir Giles, Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia & Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, said: “…at this point, we have no way for certain of knowing what has happened. So far, the only suggestion that there were Ukrainians on board comes from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which usually serves as an indicator that the opposite is true.
“The aircraft was flying away from Belgorod – it was supposedly carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war with just three guards. Russia mounted an impressively fast disinformation campaign off the back of the incident. That’s usually an indication that it was known about in advance.
“So, we should consider the possibility that Russia fed Ukrainian intelligence information that the aircraft was carrying S-300 missiles, as initially reported – but, in fact, filled it with Ukrainians in the expectation that it would be shot down.”
What happens next?
Around the time Zelensky called for an international investigation, the UN Security Council agreed to meet Thursday at 17:00 ET (2200 GMT) to discuss Moscow’s accusations regarding the plane, AFP reports.
Anything else I need to know?
The issue of prisoners of war is sensitive in both countries.
Despite full-scale hostilities, the two sides have carried out 49 prisoner exchanges since the war began almost two years ago.
Kyiv says more than 8,000 Ukrainians remain in Russian captivity, including civilians.
In 2022, Russia and Ukraine accused each other of carrying out deadly bombardments on a jail holding dozens of captured Ukrainian servicemen in Kremlin-controlled Olenivka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Since Moscow launched large-scale hostilities in Ukraine in February 2022, several Russian military aircraft have crashed, and Ukraine has also claimed to have shot down Russian war planes.
In Russia, the plane carrying Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed last August on a flight from Moscow to St Petersburg.
Moscow denied involvement, claiming instead that the plane crashed because its passengers detonated a grenade on board.
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