By Andrew Carey, Radina Gigova, Katharina Krebs, Yulia Kesaieva, Anna Chernova, Olga Voitovych and Sophie Tanno, CNN
(CNN) — Russia accused Ukraine of downing a Russian military plane near the Ukrainian border Wednesday, saying all 74 people on board were killed including dozens of Ukrainian servicemen being transported for a prisoner swap.
The Ilyushin-76 cargo plane crashed inside Russian airspace, 5 to 6 kilometers (about 3 to 3.7 miles) from the village of Yablonovo in the Belgorod region. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and its Defense Ministry called it an act of terrorism.
“The plane was destroyed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces from the area of Liptsy, Kharkiv region, using an anti-aircraft missile system,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The radar equipment of the Russian Aerospace Forces observed the launch of two Ukrainian missiles.”
Air defense systems in the Belgorod region were active shortly before the crash, according to the region’s governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.
Ukraine’s military command said it regarded Russian military aircraft approaching Belgorod as legitimate targets but stopped short of acknowledging it fired at the plane.
In a carefully worded statement, the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said recent attacks on the city of Kharkiv, which lies just 18 miles (30 km) from Russia, are being facilitated by Russian cargo planes bringing weapons close to the border.
“The recorded intensity of the shelling is directly related to the increase in the number of military transport aircraft that have recently been heading to the Belgorod airfield,” the statement said.
“With this in mind, the Armed Forces of Ukraine will continue to take measures to destroy delivery means and control the airspace to eliminate the terrorist threat, including on the Belgorod-Kharkiv direction.”
Ukrainian sources earlier said the plane was carrying missiles for the S-300 air defense system. CNN cannot independently verify either side’s claims.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of “playing with the lives” of Ukrainian prisoners of war and called for an international investigation, saying “it is necessary to establish clear facts as much as possible, given that the plane crash happened on Russian territory that is beyond our control.”
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told reporters on Wednesday that he had requested an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting following the crash.
Loud, thunderous claps
A video geolocated by CNN appeared to show the IL-76 plane’s final seconds before it crashes to the ground.
The video was filmed in Yablonovo, which lies about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of the city of Belgorod, and begins with the plane already in a steep fall. Just before it disappears behind a passing truck and trees, what appears to be a part of the plane can be seen falling from the front of the fuselage.
Two seconds later, after the plane has disappeared from view, a huge fireball and black smoke can be seen emerging from the point of impact – which is not visible – with the ground.
The camera then pans sharply to the left to show what appears to be a small cloud of smoke. This could be an indication of a possible explosion on the plane, though the flight path of the plane cannot be established with certainty from the video.
Several eyewitness described hearing loud, thunderous claps at the time of the crash, followed by an air raid alert in the Russian city.
“We heard one or two loud bangs. With an interval of a minute or less. The second bang was much louder. We all ran out to see if someone needs help, but the crash was further away after the village. It was very loud and scary,” one woman told Russian state media RIA Novosti.
“We heard three claps. The claps were loud enough, and we thought that either something had fallen somewhere here, or that missiles had been shot down in the air. Then right after that, the guys in my class began to say that air raid alert went off in Belgorod, the sound of a siren,” said one young man.
Another man said there was a “strong vibration” in the room after the loud noises.
The pilots of the Il-76 managed to steer the plane away from the village of Yablonovo, sacrificing their lives, the rector of the local church, Priest Georgy Borovikov said.
Claims of Ukrainian troops on board
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said 65 Ukrainian servicemen were on board the plane and being flown to Belgorod ahead of a prisoner swap.
“It was supposed to transport from the Moscow region to Belgorod 65 military servicemen of Ukraine. They were accompanied by three Russian officers plus the crew of six people. All of them died,” Lavrov said. “The Ukrainian side launched an air defense missile from the Kharkiv region. It targeted the aeroplane and was a fatal strike.”
CNN is not able to independently verify Russia’s claims.
A Ukrainian government agency for prisoners of war said it was investigating claims that the plane was carrying Ukrainian servicemen.
Ukraine appears to be unclear, at least publicly, on whether Ukrainian prisoners were actually on board but has suggested Moscow might have deliberately put the Ukrainian servicemen’s lives at danger.
A statement from the “Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War of Ukraine” provided no further details but did warn Russia was “actively conducting information special operations against Ukraine aimed at destabilizing Ukrainian society.”
Ukraine confirmed that a prisoner of war exchange with Russia had been due to take place on Wednesday. “It is not happening at the moment,” Andriy Yuson, from Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence, told CNN.
Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence arm said in a subsequent statement that it had fulfilled its side of that agreement, bringing captured Russian servicemen to an agreed location. However, it said Ukraine had not received details from Russia about how Ukrainian servicemen were to be brought forward to the exchange – whether they would be moved by air, rail, or road.
Crucially, it said it had not been warned against challenging the security of Belgorod’s airspace at an appointed time – something it had been warned against doing “many times in the past.” Russia has a duty to ensure the safety of prisoners of war, the statement added.
“This may indicate deliberate actions by Russia aimed at endangering the lives and safety of prisoners. Landing a transport plane in a 30-kilometer combat zone cannot be safe and in any case should be discussed by both sides, because otherwise it jeopardizes the entire exchange process.”
Six Russian crew members and three “accompanying personnel” were also on board the plane, Russian officials said. Russian Parliament’s defense committee member Andrey Kartapolov said a second military plane, also an IL-76, was carrying an additional 80 prisoners of war, which was diverted.
Kartapolov said the “Ukrainian leadership was well aware of the impending exchange and was informed of how the prisoners would be delivered. But the IL-76 plane was shot down by three missiles, either with anti-aircraft missile systems or Patriot, or with German-made IRIS.”
Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said the cause of the crash was being investigated. “A transport airplane crashed in the Korochansky district. It went down in a field near a settlement. All those on board died,” Gladkov said. “Now the crash site is cordoned off. All operational services are on site, investigative measures are being carried out,” he added.
Two Russian officials, including the Russian governor of the Tambov region, Maksim Yegorov, claimed the plane changed its course after it was hit “to avert danger to civilians” in a nearby village.
The Ilyushin Il-76 is a Soviet-era military transport aircraft with a payload of more than 50 tons, according to Europe’s air safety body, Eurocontrol. It has been in service since 1975.
The border city of Belgorod was the site of one of the deadliest Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil late last year. At least 24 people, including three children, were killed and 108 others wounded in the attacks, which sparked retaliatory Russian strikes on the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.
The plane crash comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine is set to enter its third year, with little battlefield progress made by either side in recent months. Western intelligence assessments warn that battlefield movement could further stagnate this year.
Kyiv and Moscow have exchanged prisoners of war throughout the conflict. The largest swap came earlier in January, when the two sides each exchanged over 200 prisoners.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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CNN’s Katya Krebs contributed reporting.