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Russia playing with lives of Ukrainian prisoners of war, says Zelensky after deadly plane crash

Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Vladimir Putin of “playing with the emotions” of the Ukrainian prisoners of war after a Russian military transport plane with 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers was shot down, killing all of them.

The Ilyushin Il-76 military aircraft carrying 74 people was shot down near the Russian city Belgorod, just 40km north of the border with Ukraine on Wednesday. The Il-76 is a military transport aircraft designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It has a normal crew of five people, and can carry up to 90 passengers.

The Kremlin said in response to a reporter’s question on Wednesday that it was looking into the situation.

Photos and videos of the plane crash on social media and Telegram channels show it dwindled down after an explosion near Yablonovo village in the northeast Belgorod at 11am. The plane crash was confirmed by the regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, who said that everyone on board died.

Apart from the 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war, the plane had six Russian crew members and three Russian soldiers onboard.

“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.

The Ukrainian war-time president said the facts concerned with the plane downed on Russian territory must be presented.

“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.

The Ukrainian military intelligence also released a statement accusing Russia of putting the lives of its prisoners of war at risk, adding that they had not been informed by Russia to provide a safe airspace over Belgorod – a territory witnessing heavy aerial attacks in the past year.

Russia, in turn, accused Ukraine of deliberately shooting down the military plane.

Ukraine and Russia were set to carry out their prisoners of war exchange on Wednesday afternoon at the Kolotilovka border checkpoint, the Russian defence ministry said, adding that Ukraine knew a transport plane carrying captured Ukrainian soldiers was expected at the Belgorod airfield.

Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence wing said the country was not alerted about ensuring safe 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.

"On this basis, we may be talking about planned and deliberate actions by Russia to destabilise the situation in Ukraine and weaken international support for our state," GUR said in a statement on Telegram.

"Landing a transport plane in a 30-km combat zone cannot be safe and in any case must be discussed by both sides, because otherwise it jeopardises the entire exchange process," it said.

Officials in the Ukrainian military said they will continue to destroy Russian military transport aircraft they believed were carrying missiles with which it can attack Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky has cancelled a regional trip and events linked to his birthday, awaiting clarification of the crash of the Russian aircraft.

This is the deadliest incident of its kind inside Russia’s recognised borders during the continuing full-scale invasion of Ukraine since February 2022.