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Russia ‘playing with lives’ of Ukrainian POWs

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Russia is “playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners” after Moscow accused Kyiv of downing a military plane carrying dozens of its own captured soldiers.

Moscow said 74 people died – 65 of them Ukrainian prisoners of war being flown to a scheduled exchange – when a military transport plane was shot down in the western Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine early 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,” Mr Zelensky said in an evening address on the incident.

He did not confirm or deny Russia’s claims, but said it had been a “very difficult day”.

“We need to establish all the clear facts. As much as possible, given that the downing of the plane occurred on Russian territory, which is beyond our control,” he said in a video published on social media.

He also called for an international investigation into what brought down the plane.

Russia immediately blamed Ukraine for the incident, calling it a “terrorist act”.

In a series of carefully-worded statements, various military agencies in Kyiv confirmed a prisoner exchange had been scheduled to take place and said Russia was responsible for protecting Ukrainian POWs in its custody, while vowing to continue targeting Russian military facilities and planes in the Belgorod region.

But Kyiv is yet to say whether Ukrainian POWs were killed in the crash or if the plane was downed by Ukrainian weapons.

Mr Zelensky said he had instructed various state agencies to investigate the crash.

Videos on social media showed a large plane in the Belgorod region falling from the sky on its side before crashing in a fireball.

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Russia’s defence ministry said the IL-76 plane was carrying Ukrainian soldiers captured in Russia’s offensive, as well as six crew and three escorts.

It claimed Ukrainian forces stationed in the Kharkiv border region had fired two missiles at the transport aircraft.

“We currently do not have reliable or comprehensive information on who was on board the plane or in what number,” Ukraine’s main intelligence agency said in a statement.

“The plane crashed far away from the village. It was very loud and very scary,” said Maria Mexentseva, a resident of nearby Yablonovo.

“We just heard a loud rumble,” she told the RIA-Novosti news agency. “There was already smoke, fire and rumbling.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the crash, saying news was still emerging and that authorities would “look into” the incident.

The head of Russian-state broadcaster RT published a list of captured Ukrainian servicemen allegedly on board.

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Ukrainian civilian casualties of the war ticked up yesterday, with two people, including a 16-year-old, killed and nine wounded when a Russian rocket hit Girnyk village in the eastern Donetsk region, Donetsk regional head Vadim Filachkine said, accusing Moscow of targeting civilians.

A strike in the southern city of Kherson wounded six people, local officials said.

The issue of prisoners of war is sensitive in both countries.

Despite full-scale hostilities, the two sides have carried out 49 prisoner exchanges since the conflict began almost two years ago.

Kyiv says more than 8,000 Ukrainians remain in Russian captivity, including civilians.

In 2022, Russia and Ukraine accused each other of carrying out deadly bombardments on a jail holding dozens of captured Ukrainian servicemen in Kremlin-controlled Olenivka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Since Moscow launched large-scale hostilities in Ukraine in February 2022, several Russian military aircraft have crashed, and Ukraine has also claimed to have shot down Russian war planes.

In Russia, the plane carrying Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed last August on a flight from Moscow to St Petersburg.

Moscow denied involvement, claiming instead that the plane crashed because its passengers detonated a grenade on board.

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