A Russian military plane carrying 74 people has crashed in the Belgorod border region, Russian media reports cited officials as saying.
There are conflicting reports about what the IL-76 aircraft was carrying. Russian news agencies citing the Defense Ministry said 65 Ukrainian servicemen were on board and being flown to Belgorod ahead of a prisoner swap. Belgorod’s governor claimed all passengers on board have been killed.
Six crew members and three “accompanying personnel” were also on board the IL-76 cargo plane, Russian officials said. Russian Parliament’s defense committee, Andrey Kartapolov, said there was a second military plane, also an IL-76, carrying an additional 80 prisoners of war, which was diverted.
Kartapolov also said the “Ukrainian leadership was well aware of the impending exchange and was informed of how the prisoners would be delivered. But the IL-76 plane was shot down by three missiles, either with anti-aircraft missile systems or Patriot, or with German-made IRIS.”
Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said the cause of the crash was being investigated. “A transport airplane crashed in the Korochansky district. It went down in a field near a settlement. All those on board died,” Gladkov said. “Now the crash site is cordoned off. All operational services are on site, investigative measures are being carried out,” he added.
The plane crashed 5 to 6 kilometers (about 3 to 3.7 miles) from the village of Yablonovo in the Korocha district of Belgorod region, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
“No damage was done to the village, as it [the plane] crashed in a field outside of the village,” a local cleric, Rev. Georgy, rector of the Dimitri Solunsky church in Yablonovo, told TASS.
The Kremlin declined to comment on the reported crash. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “This is quite new information, we will now deal with it. I can’t say anything yet.”
The Ilyushin Il-76 is a Soviet-era military transport aircraft with a payload of more than 50 tons, according to Europe’s air safety body, Eurocontrol. It has been in service since 1975.
The border city of Belgorod was the site of one of the deadliest Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil late last year. At least 24 people, including three children, were killed and 108 others wounded in the attacks, which sparked retaliatory Russian strikes on the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.
The plane crash comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine is set to enter its third year, with little battlefield progress made by either side in recent months. Western intelligence assessments warn that battlefield movement could further stagnate this year.
Kyiv and Moscow have exchanged prisoners of war throughout the conflict. The largest swap came earlier in January, when the two sides each exchanged over 200 prisoners.
This is a developing story and will be updated.