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Ukraine war latest: Russia says Ukrainian POWs were in crashed II-76 aircraft, Kyiv calls for investigation

by The Kyiv Independent news desk January 25, 2024 12:20 AM 9 min read
A Russian Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft flies over Moscow during a parade rehearsal in May 2022. Photo for illustrative purposes (Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Key developments on Jan. 24:

  • Russia says 65 Ukrainian POWs were on crashed Il-76; Ukraine calls for international investigation
  • RFE/RL Schemes project identifies crew members’ names of crashed IL-76, confirms 3 deaths
  • Russian drone attack in Odesa injures 2
  • Police: 9 wounded, 2 killed in Russian attack on Hirnyk, Donetsk Oblast
  • Russian forces hit Kherson hospital, injure 3 medical workers
  • Death toll of Russian Jan. 23 strike on Kharkiv rises to 10
  • Shmyhal meets Fico in Uzhhorod, says Slovakia will not block EU aid for Ukraine.

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.

Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda reported, citing its sources in the Ukrainian military, that the plane was carrying S-300 missiles. This information was also provided to Ukrinform by its military sources.

Ukrainska Pravda initially claimed that Ukrainian forces downed the plane, but the information was later retracted. The outlet said that another of its sources did not confirm this claim.

The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that 65 Ukrainian POWs were aboard the fatally crashed plane on its way for a prisoner exchange, as well as six crew members and three accompanying people.

The Kyiv Independent could not verify these claims. The Ukrainian military did not immediately respond to the Kyiv Independent's request for comment.

Ukraine's military intelligence (HUR) confirmed that a prisoner exchange had been planned for Jan. 24 but did not happen and that it is verifying the Russian claim regarding the Ukrainian POWs.

HUR said the Russian side did not inform it about the need to ensure the safety of the airspace before the plane crashed over Belgorod.

Without neither confirming nor denying Ukraine's involvement in the plane crash,  Ukraine's General Staff said in its statement that Ukraine is closely monitoring the launch points of Russian missiles and the logistics of their delivery, especially with the use of military transport aircraft, amid intensifying Russian attacks.

In an evening address, President Volodymyr Zelensky called for an international investigation and said that Ukraine is trying to find out more details about the incident.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the plane was shot down by Ukrainian air defenses operating from northeastern Kharkiv Oblast, requesting an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

Without commenting on what may have caused the crash, Zelensky insisted on establishing facts as clearly as possible "given that the downing of the plane occurred on Russian territory, which is beyond our control."

"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," Zelensky said, adding that Ukraine had passed on available information to its allies.

The White House is aware of claims that Ukrainian POWs were on the crashed Il-76 but is "not in a position to confirm them," U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.

"Obviously (we are) doing the best we can to try to get more clarity and more information on it," he added.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's investigation project Schemes identified the names of the crew members of the Il-76 transport plane.

Schemes journalists said they had obtained a list of the six-person crew that was supposed to accompany the flight. It included 36-year-old commander Stanislav Bezzubikin, 38-year-old flight engineer Andrey Piluyev, and the ship's navigator Alexey Vysokin.

According to Schemes, the deaths of Bezzubkin and Piluyev were confirmed by their wives, while Vysokin's death was confirmed to journalists by his cousin.

Schemes journalists also identified flight radioman Igor Sablinsky as a member of the Il-76 crew.

Ukraine says it was not informed about need to ensure safety of airspace before plane crash in Belgorod Oblast
The Russian side did not notify Ukraine about the necessity to ensure the safety of the airspace around Belgorod, Ukraine’s military intelligence said, which has been done “repeatedly” in the past.

Earlier on Jan. 24, videos appeared on local Telegram channels capturing what appeared to be a crash of the plane.

"A transport plane crashed in the Korochansky District," said Belgorod Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, claiming that it fell in a field and "all on board died."

The Ilyushin Il-76 is a heavy transport plane intended to carry military cargo and troops over long distances. Designed to be armed with two guns in a rear turret, the plane can carry a maximum payload of up to 80 metric tons.

A key feature of the Il-76 is that it is able to operate from airports that lack loading devices or unpaved runways and has often been used to transport humanitarian aid to areas hit by natural disasters.

According to the monitoring group Belarusian Hajun, Russia has used Il-76 aircraft to deliver S-300 missiles to Belarus. Il-76 can carry over 100 paratroopers in a single mission.

Russia is reported to have lost several of these aircraft since the start of the full-scale war. Il-76 were said to be among the 10 planes destroyed in August 2022 at the Saky airfield in Crimea. Ukraine neither confirmed nor denied its participation.

In August 2023, a Ukrainian special operation destroyed four Russian Il-76 aircraft at a military airfield in the Russian city of Pskov.

Today's crash is the latest in Russia's recent string of aircraft losses. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian military said it had downed a Russian Beriev A-50 military observation plane and an Ilyushin Il-22 plane that operates as an airborne command post.

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Russian drone attack in Odesa injures 2

Russian drone attacks in Odesa on the evening of Jan. 24 injured two people, Governor Oleh Kiper said.

According to the governor, one man suffered from burns, and another was hospitalized with multiple but non-fatal cuts, Kiper added.

The attacks also caused damage to residential buildings and started fires, Kiper said.

Located far from the active combat zone, Russia still frequently targets Odesa, often attacking with drones.

A drone strike on Jan. 17 injured three people and damaged buildings, forcing the evacuation of 130 people.

Russian troops also launched an attack against the town of Hirnyk in Donetsk Oblast, targeting a residential area, the Donetsk Oblast police said on Jan. 24.

Two people were killed and nine were injured, including two 16-year-olds, according to the police. Donetsk Oblast Governor Vadym Filashkin wrote on Telegram that one of the wounded boys is "in an extremely serious condition."

In southern Kherson, Russian forces launched an attack, hitting a hospital and injuring at least three medical workers, Governor Oleksandr Prokudin reported.

The building was hit around noon, resulting in damaged offices and broken windows, the governor noted.

A 60-year-old woman was also injured in today's attacks against the city. She was reportedly hospitalized with a leg wound and explosive injuries.

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Death toll of Russian Jan. 23 strike on Kharkiv rises to 10

The death toll of a Russian missile attack against Kharkiv on Jan. 23 has risen to 10 as two more bodies were found under the rubble, the State Emergency Service said on Jan. 24.

Russia launched a mass missile strike against Ukraine on Jan. 23, targeting mainly Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Pavlohrad in Dnipropertrovsk Oblast. Counting the latest numbers, the attack killed 11 people and injured over 80.

The two Kharkiv residents found in the ruins of a five-story building today were a 56-year-old woman and a 57-year-old man.

Two killed dogs were also found in the rubble, the State Emergency Service said.

Russia began intensifying its attacks against Ukraine's cities and infrastructure as the temperatures dropped, echoing its strategy from last winter.

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Shmyhal meets Fico in Uzhhorod, says Slovakia will not block EU aid for Ukraine

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico met his Ukrainian counterpart Denys Shmyhal in Uzhhorod, a city in western Ukraine, where they discussed the relations between their countries and signed a joint statement on bilateral relations, Shmyhal reported on Jan. 24.

Elected in September on a populist, Ukraine-skeptic platform, Fico halted arms supplies from Slovakia's military stocks and repeatedly criticized both defense assistance for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.

According to Shmyhal, Fico agreed Slovakia will support the EU's Ukraine Facility, a long-term funding program designed to support Ukraine by allocating up to 50 billion euros ($55 billion) to Kyiv from 2024 to 2027.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the only European leader to veto the Ukraine Facility at an EU summit in December. A decision to provide the financial aid package is expected to be discussed during the European Council summit on Feb. 1.

Fico is close to Orban and his Fidesz party. Following talks with Orban, he said on Jan. 14 that he agrees with Budapest's position that the EU should not finance the package from the EU's common budget.

The same day, Orban said that relations between the two countries were at a "high point" and that both are "unhappy about Brussels' initiatives for a super state."

"Despite the disagreement, we intend to form a policy of 'new pragmatism' with the government of Slovakia, which will benefit both states," Shmyhal said.

Shmyhal also said he was "sure that today's meeting will open a new page in our relations," shortly before the two signed the joint statement.

"Prime Minister Fico assured me of his full support for Ukraine's European integration aspirations," Shmyhal said. Fico has previously said that he does not oppose Ukraine's membership in the EU if Kyiv meets all criteria for accession.

Shymhal also said that Fico agreed his government would not block Ukrainian attempts to buy weapons or equipment from Slovak businesses.

While Fico stopped government arms supplies to Ukraine after coming to power, he said that he would not hinder arms sales from Slovak companies to Ukraine.

According to Ukrinform, Shymhal said at a press conference in Uzhhorod that Fico agreed to cooperate with Ukraine by supplying engineering equipment that will be used to construct defensive lines.

Slovakia will therefore send Ukraine armored excavators and demining equipment, Shmyhal said.

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