Zelenskyy says Russia ‘playing with lives’ of Ukrainian POWs after crash

Comments come after Russia accused Ukraine of shooting down transport plane, killing 65 Ukrainian POWs on board.

A Russian military transport plane crashes near Yablonovo, Belgorod Region
A Russian military transport plane crashes near Yablonovo in the Belgorod region of Russia [Reuters]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of “playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners” over the crash of a military transport plane that Moscow blamed on Ukraine.

The Ilyushin Il-76 came down in the Russian border region of Belgorod on Wednesday, killing everyone on board.

The Russian Ministry of Defence said 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) were on the plane in preparation for a prisoner swap, as well as six Russian crew and three Russian soldiers.

“It is obvious that the Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, with the feelings of their relatives and with the emotions of our society,” Zelenskyy said in his Wednesday evening address.

He did not confirm or deny Russia’s claims, but said it had been a “very difficult day”.

“We need to establish all the clear facts. As much as possible, given that the downing of the plane occurred on Russian territory, which is beyond our control,” he said.

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the plane was hit as it was travelling from a military aerodrome near Moscow to Belgorod.

Close to the border with Ukraine, Belgorod has been targeted in recent weeks by Ukrainian air strikes. The ministry claimed, without offering evidence, that radars had detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles.

“On board were 65 captured Ukrainian army servicemen being transported to the Belgorod region for exchange, six crew members and three escorts,” state news agency RIA Novosti quoted the defence ministry as saying. It did not provide any evidence for the claim.

A few hours afterwards, the Ukrainian military said it had noticed more Russian military transport aircraft landing in Belgorod, something it linked to continued Russian missile strikes on Kharkiv and other Ukrainian cities.

“Ukraine has the right to defend itself and destroy the means of the aggressors’ aerial attack,” said Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk.

The Kremlin told reporters that it was investigating the reports on the plane, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council, saying Russia aimed to establish “the reasons behind the Ukrainian criminal act”.

A French spokesperson at the UN said the meeting would be held at 5pm (22:00 GMT) on Thursday.

Zelenskyy also called for an international investigation into the crash.

No request on airspace security

Ukraine’s intelligence agency said in a statement it had no “reliable or comprehensive information” on who was on board the plane or in what number”.

Andriy Yusov, a representative of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, said that an exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine had been prepared for Wednesday, Ukraine’s state broadcaster Suspilne reported, citing Radio Free Europe, a media outlet based in the Czech Republic.

A Russian Orthodox priest lighting candles at a service for those killed in the Belgorod plane crash
A church service being held in Russia for those killed when the Ilyushin Il-76 crashed [AFP]

Yusov added that the prisoner exchange would not be going ahead.

Military intelligence also said that Ukraine had not been asked to ensure airspace security around Belgorod in contrast to 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,” it said in a statement on Telegram.

A video posted on Telegram by Baza, a channel linked to Russian security services, showed a large aircraft falling and exploding in a fireball.

Regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on social media that investigators and emergency workers had already arrived at a site in the Korochansky, a district in Belgorod Oblast.

“The plane fell in a field near a populated area. Everyone on board died,” Gladkov said on his Telegram channel.

The Il-76 is designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It usually has a crew of five and can carry as many as 90 passengers.

Korochansky district

Kharkiv and Kyiv came under Russian aerial assault on Tuesday, killing at least 18 people.

In December, Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out a “terrorist attack” on civilians in the city of Belgorod, after 25 people were killed.

Last week, the Kremlin accused Kyiv of killing 27 people in an attack on the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Ukraine has denied the claim.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies