A RUSSIAN military transport plane crashed Wednesday in a border region near Ukraine, and Moscow accused Kyiv of shooting it down, saying all 74 people aboard were killed, including 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war headed for a swap. Russia offered no evidence and Ukraine didn't immediately confirm or deny it.
Video of the crash on social media from the Belgorod border region of Russia showed a plane falling from the sky in a snowy, rural area, and a huge ball of fire erupting where it apparently hit the ground.
The Associated Press couldn't confirm who was aboard or other details on what brought the plane down.
Throughout the 700-day war, Russia and Ukraine have traded conflicting accusations, and establishing the facts has often been difficult, both because of the constraints of a war zone and because each side tightly controls information.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the Il-76 transport plane was carrying 65 POWs, a crew of six and three Russian servicemen. Russian radar registered the launch of two missiles from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region that borders Belgorod, the statement said.
“We’ve seen the reports, but we’re not in any position to confirm them,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Separately, a U.S. official said it was not clear that there were actually Ukrainian POWs aboard the aircraft that crashed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details that haven't been announced publicly.
Hours after the crash, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine made no mention of the crash in a statement. But it added that Ukraine targets Russian military transport planes believed to be delivering missiles, especially near the border.
Russia lost two warplanes and two helicopters in its own airspace in one day in May 2023. Kyiv officials initially denied involvement, but later said they had used Patriot missiles to hit the aircraft.
The Kharkiv and Belgorod regions have long been a focus of the fighting between the neighbors, including airstrikes with missiles and drones.
The Russian military said the POWs were being flown to the region for a prisoner swap when the plane was downed at 11:15 a.m. local time. The Il-76 is designed to carry up to 225 troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons, according to Russia’s military export agency.
Ukrainian military intelligence confirmed a swap was due to take place, but said it had no information about who was on the plane. Moscow didn't ask for specific airspace to be kept safe for a certain length of time, as has happened in past exchanges, it said in a statement.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine would push for an international investigation of what happened. “It is necessary to establish all the facts, as much as possible, considering that the plane crash occurred on Russian territory — beyond our control,” he said in his nightly address.
“It’s obvious Russians are playing with lives of Ukrainian POWs, with feelings of their relatives and emotions of our society,” Zelenskyy said.
At a news conference at the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an emergency meeting later Wednesday of the U.N. Security Council, saying he had “no concern” about the international community believing Moscow's allegations.
But the Security Council already had a meeting scheduled to hear from many countries that didn’t get to speak at Tuesday’s ministerial meeting on the Israeli-Hamas war, and France, which holds the council's presidency, indicated the emergency Ukraine meeting would take place Thursday afternoon.
Russian officials and lawmakers questioned whether there should be further prisoner swaps between Moscow and Kyiv. The most recent one, brokered by the United Arab Emirates, took place this month and was the biggest to date, with 230 Ukrainian POWs returning home and 248 Russians released. It was the first in almost five months and the 49th of the war.
Russia has largely ensured its air dominance during the war against Ukraine's fleet of Soviet-era warplanes. But Russia has suffered a series of crashes that some observers have attributed to a higher number of flights amid the fighting in Ukraine.