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Ukraine: prisoner swap with Russia fails

Russia accuses Ukraine of shooting down its military transport plane IL-76. It says there were 65 Ukrainian POWs on board.
Ukraine: prisoner swap with Russia fails
Russian military transport IL-76 crash site in Belgorod Oblast. Photo: TASS

Russia accuses Ukraine of shooting down its military transport plane IL-76. It says there were 65 Ukrainian POWs on board.

Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate has confirmed that a prisoner exchange scheduled for 24 January did not occur.

“A prisoner swap planned for today did not occur. Russia claims this resulted from their IL-76 being downed while allegedly carrying Ukrainian captives. We currently lack reliable information on who exactly was aboard,” Ukraine’s intelligence said on Telegram.

Ukraine’s intelligence also stressed that Ukraine fulfilled all preparations for the prisoner swap, delivering Russian prisoners to the agreed location where they stayed unharmed. Yet Russia, responsible for Ukrainian POWs’ safety, gave no heads-up about securing airspace near Belgorod when transferring them, despite past coordination.

“Landing a transport plane in an active 30km battle zone endangers any prisoner exchange unless coordinated by both sides. Russia’s failure to discuss risks could signal premeditated attempts to destabilize Ukraine and erode our international backing,” Ukraine’s intelligence determined.

On 24 January, a Russian IL-76 military cargo plane crashed in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast. The Kremlin accused Ukraine of deliberately shooting down the plane, which they claim was carrying 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers for a prisoner exchange, in what it called a “barbaric act of terrorism” that killed 74 people total.

The Russian Defense Ministry said there were six Russian crew members and three Russian soldiers on the IL-76 military transport plane.

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reacted to the crash of the Russian IL-76 in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast. Their statement can be seen as a hint, but not a direct confirmation that the Ukrainian military shot down the Russian plane.

“The Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery and airspace control in order to eliminate the terrorist threat, including in the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction,” the statement published on Facebook says.

So while not an outright admission, the General Staff’s vow to keep targeting Russian assets near the border leaves open the possibility Ukraine was behind the IL-76’s downing.

A representative of the Chief Intelligence Directorate, Andriy Yusov, confirmed to Radio Liberty that a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine was scheduled for January 24. According to Yusov, whether any Ukrainian prisoners of war were aboard the Russian IL-76 is still being verified.

Mykhailo Podoliak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, told Reuters: “Comments will come a little later. Time is needed to clarify all the data.”

So far, Russia’s claims cannot be verified, however they raise doubts. First, it is difficult to imagine how 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war were guarded by only three Russian military men. Second, as one Ukrainian OSINT analyst told RBC-Ukraine, the crashed IL-76 aircraft with registration number RA-78830 previously flew through Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea and Iran, disappeared from radars near Syria, and then reappeared over Belgorod. 

So, according to the analyst’s version, “everything indicates that the IL-76 was transporting weapons from the East and so far there are no signs that POWs could have been there.”

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