Russian President Vladimir Putin said a Russian military plane that crashed near the border with Ukraine on Wednesday was shot down by Ukrainian air defences, whether on purpose or by mistake.
Moscow accuses Kyiv of downing the Ilyushin Il-76 plane in Russia’s Belgorod region and killing 74 people on board, including 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers en route to be swapped for Russian PoWs. It has not presented proof.
Kyiv has neither confirmed nor denied that its forces downed the aircraft and said there is no proof of who was on board. It has challenged details of Moscow’s account and called for an international investigation.
Russia has sole access to the crash site and the claims could not be independently verified.
Russia’s state investigative committee said body parts were being collected and removed for genetic testing, and some of them bore distinctive tattoos like those worn by captured Ukrainians that Russia had interrogated.
It said the evidence collected also included “documents of Ukrainian servicemen who died in the disaster, confirming their identities, as well as accompanying documents from the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia".
Russian state media quoted president Vladimir Putin on Friday as blaming Ukraine for downing the plane.
“The missiles that shot down the Il-76 with captured Ukrainian armed forces military personnel were launched from Ukrainian territory,” he said, according to TASS.
On Thursday the Investigative Committee said preliminary findings showed the plane was struck by a surface-to-air missile fired from Ukraine.
Ukraine has rejected a Russian assertion that it was forewarned that a plane carrying Ukrainian POWs would be flying over the Belgorod region at that time.
It has also pointed to discrepancies on a purported list of the names of the 65 Ukrainians that was published by Russian media, saying some of these were soldiers who had already returned in a previous swap.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was not aware any official list had been published. He told reporters he had no information on what would happen to the body remains and whether they would be handed to Ukraine.
Asked if Russia would provide the UN Security Council and other international organisations with evidence that Ukraine shot down the plane, Mr Peskov said: "I have nothing to add yet. Investigators are working, decisions will be made after the investigators receive all the necessary information."
Russian state media said the black boxes from the plane had been delivered to a special defence ministry laboratory in Moscow and investigators were already working on them.
Ukraine has opened a criminal complaint into the crash, which happened on Wednesday, and the country’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations said it would be the first case of Russia using human shields on aircraft to cover for transportation of weaponry if it was confirmed PoWs were on board.
Khrystyna Hayovyshyn said: “Ukraine was not informed about the number of vehicles, roads and means of transportation of the captives. This alone may constitute intentional actions by Russia to endanger the lives and safety of the prisoners.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky accused his opposite number Putin of playing with the emotions of the Ukrainian prisoners of war the plane was downed.
“It is clear that the Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners, the feelings of their loved ones and the emotions of our society,” Mr Zelensky said in his evening address.
He added that Russia must present the facts of the crash.
“All clear facts must be established. To the extent possible, given that the aircraft crashed on Russian territory – beyond our control. ‘Facts’ is the key word now,” he said, without directly confirming who shot down the plane.
Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence wing said the country was not alerted about ensuring airspace security like in previous swaps, or the information of what transport will be used and which routes will be taken. No reliable information about who was on the downed plane was shared with Ukraine, officials said.
In other developments, the Kremlin was forced to deny that Putin had put out “feelers” to the United States about ending the war.
Citing two sources close to the Kremlin, Bloomberg said Russia had signalled to the White House in December that it was ready for talks.
“No, this is a wrong report,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “It absolutely does not correspond to reality.”