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Russia accuses Ukraine of shooting down plane carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war in Belgorod region

Russia claims Ukraine responsible for downed plane
Russia claims Ukraine is responsible for downed military plane 02:03

Russia's Ministry of Defense accused Ukraine on Wednesday of shooting down a military aircraft that was carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war over Russia's western Belgorod region, killing everyone on board. The claim about what downed the II-76 aircraft could not be independently confirmed, but the ministry said Russian radar systems had detected the launch of two Ukrainian missiles that struck the plane.

Ukrainian officials warned against sharing unverified information, with the country's Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War issuing a statement saying, "the enemy is actively conducting information special operations against Ukraine aimed at destabilizing Ukrainian society."

In a statement issued later Wednesday, Ukraine's Armed Forces did not refer to the plane crash in Belgorod specifically, but it acknowledged a recent "intensity of shelling" in the region that it called a direct response to "an increase in the number of [Russian] military transport planes that have recently been heading to the Belgorod airfield," which it said were linked to logistics for Russia's ongoing missile strikes in eastern Ukraine. 

An image taken from video obtained by Reuters shows a fireball erupting near the town of Yablonovo, in Russia's western Belgorod region, reportedly from the scene of a military plane crash. Obtained by Reuters

The Ukrainian military said it would "continue to take measures to destroy means of delivery, [and to] control the airspace to destroy the terrorist threat" presented by Russia. 

Russia's Ministry of Defense said the plane had been carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war from Chkalovsky, near Moscow, to Belgorod for a prisoner swap. Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency said 65 POWs had been on the plane, along with six crew members and three people accompanying the prisoners.

A U.S. official told CBS News there were no immediate indications that a missile fired from Ukraine had struck the plane, and that it remained unclear whether there were Ukrainians on board the aircraft.

"We currently do not have reliable or comprehensive information on who was on board the plane or in what number," Ukraine's national intelligence directorate said in a statement, according to the French news agency AFP. It confirmed that a "prisoner exchange was supposed to take place" Wednesday, but said "Ukraine was not informed about the number of vehicles, routes and forms of delivery of prisoners."

"It is known that prisoners are delivered by air, rail and road. This may indicate deliberate actions by Russia aimed at endangering the lives and safety of prisoners," the directorate said in its statement, adding that Ukraine "was not informed about the need to ensure the security of the airspace in the area around the city of Belgorod at a set time, as has been done many times in the past."  

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in New York for meetings at the United Nations, called Wednesday for an immediate emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the crash in Belgorod, which he called a "Ukrainian criminal act."

"On the morning of January 24, Moscow time, a terrorist attack was conducted. As a result in the Belgorod region Russian transport aircraft IL-76 was downed. It was supposed to transport from the Moscow region to Belgorod 65 military servicemen armed forces of Ukraine. They were accompanied by three Russian officers and the crew of six people. All of them died," Lavrov said. "The Ukrainian prisoners of war were transported to the Belgorod region in order to conduct yet another swap that was agreed between Moscow and Kyiv."

Amateur video posted on social media and verified by CBS News' partner network BBC News as authentic showed the plane falling from the sky and then a huge ball of flames erupting where it hit the ground. A small puff of smoke was visible in the sky where the plane had been spotted before crashing.

Russia's Ministry of Defense said a special military commission was on its way to the site of the crash.

"So far, the only suggestion that there were Ukrainians on board comes from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which usually serves as an indicator that the opposite is true," Keir Giles, Senior Consulting Fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at London's Chatham House thinktank, said in a statement. "Russia controls the crash site — and has every opportunity to fabricate evidence to support its story. Missile fragments and other 'evidence' can easily be introduced to show to journalists... In summary, Russia holds all the cards for turning a serious military setback locally into a propaganda victory worldwide."

There have been a number of Russian military plane crashes recently, which some analysts have suggested is due to an increased number of flights amid Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, according to the AP.

Russian military plane crashed in Belgorod region
Omar Zaghloul/Anadolu/Getty

Belgorod governor Gladkov said a Ukrainian drone had been shot down in the area earlier Wednesday, but there were no casualties and no damage caused. It was the latest in what appears to be a move by Ukraine to extend its attacks inside Russia ahead of the two-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said previously that Ukraine's military would conduct more strikes on the border region this year, in part to unnerve Russians ahead of the upcoming March 17 presidential election in the country. President Vladimir Putin is set to run again, virtually unchallenged after a years-long crackdown on all forms of dissent.

Pamela Falk contributed reporting from the United Nations.

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