KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Officials in Ukraine said Russia has provided no credible evidence to back its claims that Ukrainian forces shot down a military transport plane that Moscow says was carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war who were to be swapped for Russian POWs.
The Ukrainian agency that deals with prisoner exchanges said late Friday that Russian officials had “with great delay” provided it with a list of the 65 Ukrainians who Moscow said had died in the plane crash in Russia's Belgorod region on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said relatives of the named POWs were unable to identify their loved ones in crash site photos provided by Russian authorities. The agency's update cited Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Lt. Col. Kyrylo Budanov, as saying that Kyiv had no verifiable information about who was on the plane.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday that missiles fired from across the border brought down the transport plane that it said was taking the POWs back to Ukraine. Local authorities in Belgorod, which borders Ukraine, said the crash killed all 74 people onboard, including six crew members and three Russian servicemen.
“We currently don’t have evidence that there could have been that many people onboard the aircraft. Russian propaganda’s claim that the IL-76 aircraft was transporting 65 Ukrainian POWs (heading) for a prisoner swap continues to raise a lot of questions,” Budanov said.
Social media users in the Belgorod region posted a video Wednesday that 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.
Kyiv has neither confirmed nor denied that its forces downed a Russian military transport plane that day, and Russia's claim that the crash killed Ukrainian POWs couldn't be independently verified. Earlier Friday, Mykola Oleshchuk, Ukraine’s air force commander, described Moscow’s assertion as “rampant Russian propaganda.”
Ukrainian officials earlier this week confirmed that a prisoner swap was due to happen Wednesday, but said it was called off. They said Moscow didn't ask for any specific stretch of airspace to be kept safe for a certain length of time, as it has for past prisoner exchanges.
An International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson in Ukraine urged Russia on Friday night to return the bodies of any POWs who might have died in the plane crash.
In a live interview with the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Red Cross Media Relations Officer Oleksandr Vlasenko also remarked that “very little time” had passed between the initial reports of the crash and Moscow declaring it was ready to return the bodies of the Ukrainian POWs.
While Ukraine and Russia regularly exchange the bodies of dead soldiers, each trade has required considerable preparation, Vlasenko said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for an international investigation into the crash. Russia has sole access to the crash site.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged Friday to make the findings of Moscow’s crash investigation public. In his first public remarks about the crash, Putin repeated previous comments by Russian officials that “everything was planned” for a prisoner exchange that day when the aircraft went down.
“Knowing (the POWs were aboard), they attacked this plane. I don’t know whether they did it on purpose or by mistake, through thoughtlessness,” Putin said of Ukraine at a meeting with students in St. Petersburg.
He offered no details to support the allegation that Kyiv was to blame, but said the plane’s flight recorders had been found.
“There are black boxes, everything will now be collected and shown,” Putin said.
As the war nears its two-year mark, Ukraine is eager to demonstrate momentum to the United States and other Western allies supplying the country with weapons and other aid. A counteroffensive last year to seize Russian-occupied areas didn't produce major gains.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met with his Lithuanian counterpart in Kyiv on Saturday. During a joint news conference, the two cited progress on joint drone production and reviving a European Union fund to pay for military aid after the bloc's leaders in December postponed an agreement to top it up.
Kuleba said there was “clear understanding” between him and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis on how to provide more drones for the Ukrainian army.
“Lithuania has the technology; we have the ability to scale production. That was the key topic,” he said.
Kuleba and Landsbergis also said that Kyiv and its EU partners were inching closer to making more funds from the European Peace Facility available for long-term weapons, ammunition and other military aid deliveries for Ukraine. The EU set up the fund in 2021 to finance conflict resolution and security initiatives
Some EU members, including Germany and France, have said the 27-nation bloc needs to rethink how it sources the weapons it transfers to Ukraine. They have mentioned switching away from supplying arms from the national stocks of individual countries and toward a direct procurement process.
Kuleba said that restarting the aid deliveries would bring Kyiv closer to wresting back control over Ukrainian skies from Russia's vastly larger and more modern air force. This would help Ukraine ward off mass Russian missile and drone strikes, such as the record barrages launched over the weekend of New Year's, and provide air cover for potential offensive operations.
Lithuania, an eastern European nation that spent decades under Russian and Soviet domination, has been one of Ukraine's staunchest allies since Moscow launched its full-scale war in February 2022. Landsbergis pledged that support from the government in Vilnius would continue.
“We’ll never pay the price that you’re paying for security,” he said, addressing Kuleba and Ukrainian society. "And so ... I can only apologize that we only can do so much, but we will still be doing what we can.”
Also on Saturday, authorities in Ukraine's northern Sumy region said that a group of Russian saboteurs shot dead two civilians, a brother and sister, living in a border village less than five kilometers (three miles) from Russia. The Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office said that it had launched a criminal investigation into the shooting, while local Gov. Volodymyr Artiukh called on residents of the border strip to evacuate.
Russian shelling on Friday and overnight killed two other civilians across Ukraine, while two others were wounded, according to regional Ukrainian officials. In Ukraine's Russian-occupied south, a 70-year-old woman was wounded in a drone strike launched by the Ukrainian army, a Kremlin-installed regional official reported. It wasn't immediately possible to verify either side's reports.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine