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Ombudsman: No sign so far from crash site images that Il-76 plane had large number of passengers

by Elsa Court and The Kyiv Independent news desk January 25, 2024 1:18 PM 3 min read
A Ilyushin Il-76 seen above Moscow, Russia on May 9, 2021. (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Photos and videos from the site of the Russian Il-76 plane crash, in which Russia claims 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed, do not indicate "any signs that there were such a large number of people on the plane," Chief Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said on air on Jan. 25.

The aircraft crashed in Russia's Belgorod Oblast on Jan. 24, allegedly killing everyone on board. Russia's Defense Ministry then claimed that 65 Ukrainian POWs had been on the plane due to a scheduled prisoner exchange later that day.

Ukraine's military intelligence agency (HUR) did not confirm whether prisoners were on the plane, nor commented on what might have caused the crash, but said a prisoner exchange had been planned for that day.

President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on the evening of Jan. 24 that Ukraine will insist on an international investigation into the plane crash.

"I'm not an expert, but if there were even photos and videos of our prisoners of war, (Russia) would have already posted it," Lubinets said, referring to the photographic evidence of the crash site.

Lubinets said on air that he was "very surprised" by how quickly Russia reacted to the crash. He drew parallels with the case of Olenivka, a Russian prisoner of war camp where an explosion in July 2022 killed 57 Ukrainian POWs and injured over 100.

Russia claimed that Ukraine had struck the camp with a HIMARS rocket, but a UN investigation concluded in October 2023 that Russian claims of Ukrainian involvement in the explosion were false.

Ukrainian officials said the explosion was Russian-made and originated from within the prison.

Ukraine war latest: Russia says Ukrainian POWs were in crashed II-76 aircraft, Kyiv calls for investigation
A Russian Il-76 transport aircraft allegedly carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war crashed in Russia’s Belgorod Oblast on Jan. 24 at around 11 a.m. local time, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported, citing the country’s Defense Ministry.

Like in the case of Olenivka, Russia made "the same effort to appeal to our strategic partners, in this way to discredit military aid to our state," and is unlikely to cooperate with an international investigation, Lubinets said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council following the crash, alleging that Ukrainian air defenses operating in Kharkiv Oblast targeted the plane in a "fatal strike."

Lavrov went on to repeat debunked claims that Ukraine had staged the Bucha massacre, in which hundreds of Ukrainian civilians were murdered by Russian soldiers outside of Kyiv shortly after the beginning of the full-scale invasion in March 2022.

Lubinets said he will appeal to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross for help conducting an investigation.

"We will involve experts, including international and Ukrainian ones. But I am convinced that, as in the case in Olenivka, the Russians will make loud statements, but they will not admit anyone, they will not hand over any materials for analysis," Lubinets said.

Lubinets appealed for calm and for the public to wait "for the official position of the Ukrainian authorities, the president, and the international investigation."

Ukrainian media reported on Jan. 25 that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has opened a pre-trial investigation into the circumstances around the crash under article 438 of Ukraine's Criminal Code.

The article covers the violation of laws and customs of war, including the mistreatment of POWs.

Il-76 planes are heavy transport planes designed to carry troops and military cargo, including missiles, over long distances.

Olenivka POW camp, where Ukrainians were tortured, was likely supervised by a high-ranking official from Moscow
Kirill Popov, the first deputy head of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service’s Moscow branch, is likely to have overseen the work of the Olenivka POW camp, located in the occupied parts of Donetsk Oblast.
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