Ukraine war live updates: Ukraine accuses Russia of 'playing' with prisoners' lives amid suspicions over POW plane crash

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Kyiv will fully investigate the circumstances around the shooting down of a Russian military transport plane allegedly carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war on Wednesday.

“It is necessary to establish all clear facts. As much as possible, given that the plane crash happened on Russian territory – beyond our control,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address yesterday.

“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,” he said.

RUSSIA, BELGOROD – JANUARY 24: Security measures are taken after Il-76 plane with 65 Ukrainian military prisoners on board crashed, as the entrances and exits are kept under control in the Belgorod, Russia on January 24, 2024. (Photo by Emil Leegunov/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Anadolu | Anadolu | Getty Images

“‘Facts’ is the key word now,” he added, saying he had summoned top Ukrainian military and intelligence officials to report on the plane crash. He said he then tasked them with “finding out the fate of all prisoners” and “investigating all the circumstances.”

Zelenskyy said he’d instructed the foreign ministry to inform Ukraine’s allies of the matter. “Our state will insist on an international investigation,” he said.

Russia accused Ukrainian forces of shooting down the plane with Western-provided missiles on Wednesday, saying the plane had been on its way to a prisoner exchange. Ukraine’s intelligence agency confirmed a prisoner exchange had been scheduled but did not take place.

Security measures are taken after Il-76 plane with 65 Ukrainian military prisoners on board crashed, as the entrances and exits are kept under control in the Belgorod, Russia on January 24, 2024.

Emil Leegunov | Anadolu | Getty Images

While not admitting responsibility for shooting down the plane, the agency said the “Ukrainian side was not informed about the need to ensure the safety of the airspace in the area of the city of Belgorod in a certain period of time, as was repeatedly done in the past.”

It said that it did not have “reliable and comprehensive information about who exactly was on board the plane and how many of them.”

Separately, Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement that they would continue to “control the airspace to destroy the terrorist threat” of strikes crossing the border from Belgorod into Ukraine’s Kherson region.

— Holly Ellyatt

This photograph taken on January 23, 2024 shows a missile launched from Russia’s Belgorod region flying towards Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Vadym Bielikov | AFP | Getty Images

Ukraine’s army said Wednesday that it would continue to “control the airspace” to reduce the threat of missiles, “including in the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction,” after a Russian military transport plane crashed in the Russian border region of Belgorod.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine take all measures to protect Ukraine and Ukrainians,” the general staff said in a statement posted to Facebook, according to an NBC translation.

It said 16 people had been killed in 19 Russian rocket attacks on the Kharkiv region, which borders Belgorod, in the last week.

It also said that it monitored the launch points of missiles and their delivery logistics, especially through military aircraft, to reduce to threat of attack.

“The recorded intensity of shelling is directly related to the increase in the number of military transport planes that have recently been heading to the Belgorod airfield. Taking this into account, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery, control the airspace to destroy the terrorist threat, including in the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction,” the statement continued.

It did not specifically reference the aircraft which crashed earlier Wednesday, which Russia said was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war and nine Russians. All passengers died, Belgorod’s governor said.

— Jenni Reid

Ukraine on Wednesday suggested Russia failed to inform it of the need to create a safe airspace after a military aircraft was downed, reportedly while carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war ahead of an exchange.

Ukraine’s intelligence agency said it still did not have reliable and comprehensive information about who was on board and the number of passengers.

Earlier in the day, Russia accused Ukraine of downing the aircraft, and said 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war and nine Russians were killed.

Ukraine confirmed an exchange of prisoners was scheduled for Wednesday but one did not take place.

“For its part, Ukraine has fulfilled all agreements for the preparation of the exchange. The Russian captured servicemen were delivered in time to the designated exchange point, where they were kept safe,” the Ukrainian intelligence department said in a statement.

“According to the agreements, the Russian side had to ensure the safety of our defenders. At the same time, the Ukrainian side was not informed about the need to ensure the safety of the airspace in the area of the city of Belgorod in a certain period of time, as was repeatedly done in the past.”

It also said it was not told about the number of vehicles, routes and forms of delivery of the prisoners.

“This may indicate deliberate actions by Russia aimed at creating a threat to the life and safety of prisoners,” it alleged.

Ukraine’s army separately said it had been targeting and would continue to target military aircraft crossing the border from Russia’s Belgorod into Ukrainian Kharkiv following a slew of strikes on the region.

— Jenni Reid

Russia’s Ministry of Defense released a statement on Telegram Wednesday, giving more details on the military plane crash in Belgorod in which it said 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war died, as well as nine other Russians. Ukraine has not yet publicly commented on the crash.

Here is the ministry’s statement in full:

Today at 11:15 a.m., the Kiev regime committed a terrorist act as a result of which a Russian military transport aircraft was shot down, as it was flying along the route Chkalovsky-Belgorod airfield to transport Ukrainian military personnel for exchange.

The plane was destroyed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces from the area of Liptsy, Kharkov [Kharkiv] Region, with an anti-aircraft missile system. The radar equipment of the Russian Aerospace Forces observed the launch of two Ukrainian missiles. On board the plane were six crew members, 65 Ukrainian military personnel for the exchange and three Russian military personnel accompanying them. The crew and all passengers of the plane were killed.

The Ukrainian leadership knew very well that, according to established practice, today Ukrainian military personnel would be transported by military transport aircraft to the Belgorod airfield for exchange.

According to the previously reached agreement, this event was to take place in the afternoon at the Kolotilovka checkpoint on the Russian-Ukrainian border. And, nevertheless, the Nazi Kiev regime took this step, pursuing the goal to blame Russia for the destruction of the Ukrainian military.

By committing this terrorist attack, the Ukrainian leadership has showed its true colors — it neglected the lives of its citizens. 

Russia routinely and baselessly describes the government in Kyiv as a “Nazi regime” in order to demonize its leadership and justify its invasion of Ukraine.

— Holly Ellyatt

A Russian lawmaker suggested that a Russian military transport plane carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war that was shot down over the Belgorod region Wednesday was part of a two-plane convoy en route to a prisoner swap with Ukraine.

The Head of the Duma Defense Committee Andrei Kartapolov told the RBC news agency that the Ilyushin-76 military transport plane was “shot down by three Patriot or IRIS-T missiles,” that had been given to Ukraine’s armed forces by its Western allies.

That plane, he said, was followed by another Il-76 with more prisoners on board, Kartapolov said. The second plane was reportedly diverted.

“The second Il-76 plane was flying next, which was carrying about 80 more prisoners of war; they managed to turn it around,” Kartapolov said.

“The Ukrainian leadership was well aware of the impending exchange and was informed of how the prisoners would be delivered,” he said during a speech in the State Duma, according to a NBC News translation of his comments.

CNBC was unable to verify the claims.

— Holly Ellyatt

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