Ukraine to probe Belgorod crash as Russia questions future prisoner swaps

Russia claims Ukraine shot down military transport plane in Belgorod, killing 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on board.

Ukraine has opened a criminal investigation into the downing of a Russian military transport plane that Moscow said killed 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) as the Kremlin raised questions about future prisoner exchanges.

On Thursday, the Kremlin said that nobody could say how the IL-76 Russian Air Force plane crash in the Belgorod region would affect prisoner swaps shortly after Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of “playing with the lives” of prisoners.

Ukraine has not said whether its captured soldiers were killed – or if it was involved – in Wednesday’s shooting down of the plane.

In launching the probe, its SBU security service on Thursday said it was “currently taking a range of measures to clarify all the circumstances of the downing”.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the incident a “monstrous act”.

“Nobody can tell you how it would affect the prospects for extending this [exchange] process,” he was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

Russia has accused Ukraine of deliberately shooting down the aircraft carrying 65 POWs, six Russian crew members and three Russian soldiers as it travelled to Belgorod, near the border with Ukraine, on Wednesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of ‘playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners’ [File: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo]

While Zelenskyy did not confirm or deny Russia’s claims in his Wednesday address, he said it had been a “very difficult day”. He also called for an international inquiry.

“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.

Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Kyiv, said: “Establishing the truth has been made harder by the secrecy surrounding the highly sensitive exchanges of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners.”

Russian claims

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

According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the plane was hit as it was travelling from Moscow to Belgorod. Located 40km (25 miles) north of 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.

Russian rescue services cited by the RIA Novosti news agency reported that both black boxes had been recovered from the plane.

Ukrainian counter-claims

Russia’s claims were immediately treated with deep suspicion by Ukraine, which accuses it of conducting longstanding disinformation campaigns, said McBride.

“Officially Ukraine says it has no evidence of its prisoners of war being on the plane, but a statement by military intelligence has hinted that if they were on board, Russia is responsible for their safety,” he added.

“Kyiv also blamed Moscow for not informing it of transport arrangements for [the] prisoner swap and for flying POWs so close to an active war zone,” McBride reported.

Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency had confirmed a swap was meant to take place, but said it had not been told of how Russia would bring the prisoners to the handover point and said Ukraine had not been asked to ensure airspace security around Belgorod.

“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,” GUR said in a statement on Telegram.

Prisoner swaps

This month Russia and Ukraine exchanged hundreds of POWs in the biggest single release of captives since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022.

Ukrainian officials said that 230 of its prisoners were released while Russia said 248 of its soldiers were returned after mediation by the United Arab Emirates.

Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) react after a swap, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, at an unknown location in Ukraine, in this handout picture released January 3
Ukrainian prisoners of war react after a swap at an unknown location in Ukraine, January 3, 2024 [Handout/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service via Reuters]

While the two sides have gone through several exchanges during the war, swap deals stalled in the latter half of last year. The latest exchange was the first in almost five months.

Russian lawmaker Andrei Kartapolov on Thursday toned down the Kremlin’s statement on prisoner swaps, saying that Russia would talk with “even the devil” to bring back its captured soldiers, according to Interfax.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies