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Ukraine and Russia trade accusations over fatal plane crash that Moscow says involved Ukrainian POWs

By Associated Press
Published: January 25, 2024, 8:27am

Russia and Ukraine traded accusations Thursday over the crash of a military transport plane that Moscow said was carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war and was shot down by Kyiv’s forces, another heated episode in the information war that has been a feature of the conflict.

Though investigators reportedly found the flight recorders a day after Wednesday’s crash, there was little hope that the circumstances would be clarified in a war where both sides have often used accusations to sway opinion at home and abroad.

The Il-76 crashed in a huge ball of fire in a rural area of Russia, and authorities there said all 74 people on board, including 65 POWs, six crew members and three Russian servicemen, were killed.

The crash triggered a spate of claims and counterclaims, but neither side offered evidence for their accusations, and The Associated Press could not independently confirm who was aboard or how the plane was downed.

Russia alleged that Kyiv shot down the plane with two missiles and said the prisoners of war were headed for an exchange. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as “a totally monstrous act.”

Ukraine responded by casting doubt on the fact that POWs were aboard and putting forward their own theories, including implying that the plane may have posed a threat.

Without mentioning the crash, the general staff of the Ukrainian military said the country would target any Russian military transport plane believed to be delivering missiles, especially near the border.

Ukrainian officials have noted that Moscow did not ask for any specific airspace to be kept safe for a certain length of time, as it has in past prisoner exchanges.

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Mykola Oleshchuk, Ukraine’s air force commander, alleged that “rampant Russian propaganda is directing a fake stream of information to the international audience, attempting to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the global community.”

Ukrainian officials confirmed that a prisoner exchange was due to happen Wednesday. But they said it was called off. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine would push for an international investigation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, which was expected to take place Thursday afternoon in New York.

The discovery of the transport plane’s flight recorders was reported Thursday by the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, citing emergency services.

As the conflict approaches the two-year mark, the 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) front line has been largely static amid a second winter of fighting. With both sides seeking to replenish their weapons stockpiles, the war recently has focused on long-range strikes.

Earlier this month, in a significant blow to the Kremlin’s forces, the Ukrainian air force claimed to have shot down a Russian early warning and control plane that can spot targets up to 650 kilometers (400 miles) away and a key command center aircraft that relays information to troops on the ground.

Andrei Kartapolov, head of the defense affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, said Russia would continue exchanging prisoners despite the crash.

“We can’t abandon our boys and so we will speak to the devil himself to get them out,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s largest oil and gas company, Naftogaz, said Thursday that one of its data centers had come under a large-scale cyberattack that shut down the company’s websites and call centers.

Ukraine’s national postal service, Ukrposhta, and the State Service for Transport Safety each also reported technical failures. But neither specified if they were the result of cyberattacks.

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