Vladimir Putin on Friday said it was “obvious” that Ukraine shot down a Russian IL-76 military transport plane earlier this week, claiming Kyiv knew the aircraft was carrying 65 of its POWs.
Without offering evidence, the Russian president described the incident as a “crime,” adding: “I don't know whether they did it on purpose or thoughtlessly, but it is obvious that they did it.
“The main intelligence department of the Ukrainian army knew that we were taking 65 servicemen there. And knowing about it, they struck this aircraft.”
The exact circumstances of the downing of the Russian IL-76 military transport plane over the border region of Belgorod on Wednesday remain murky.
That a plane crashed to the ground killing everybody on board is not disputed but who shot it down and who was inside has become a fiercely contested subject.
According to Moscow, the plane was travelling to the region ahead of a prisoner swap on Wednesday when it was struck by anti-aircraft missiles.
It said there were 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on board.
Ukraine has not confirmed or denied its involvement in the crash, but officials have appeared to question whether prisoners were really on board.
Evidence provided by Russia has so far failed to back up its claim. Video footage from the scene of the crash shows only a very small number of bodies and body parts.
Ukraine’s Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said that photos and videos from the site do not indicate “any signs that there were such a large number of people on the plane.”
“I'm not an expert, but if there were even photos and videos of our prisoners of war, (Russia) would have already posted it,"
On Wednesday Russian propagandist Margo Simonyan 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.
Kyiv and Moscow have opened criminal investigations, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for an international probe, AFP reports.
Ukraine confirmed that a prisoner exchange was due to take place, but said it had not been told the soldiers would be transported to the border by plane, as in the past.
So who’s to blame?
At this stage it’s not totally clear but analysts suggest Russia has pounced on the incident to launch a disinformation operation aimed at discrediting Ukraine.
The Institute for the Study of War said on Wednesday that Russia was already “seizing on the Il-76 crash to sow domestic discontent in Ukraine and undermine Western will to continue giving military support to Ukraine.”
Russian politicians certainly siezed on this angle on Thursday, with one telling the Russian Duma they need to appeal to the US congress and to Germany to stop providing weapons to Ukraine.
He added: “Our defenceless pilots, who were conducting a humanitarian mission were shot down with American and German rockets.”
A Moscow-based independent military analyst, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told AFP: “This is strange business. We might never find out the whole truth.”
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