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Information war rages over downing of Russian military plane

Russia's Investigative Committee posted a video that it claims shows Ukrainian prisoners of war boarding the plane that later crashed in the Belgorod region near Ukrainian border.

Meanwhile Ukrainian intelligence has claimed that only five bodies were delivered from the crash site to a nearby mortuary, casting doubt on Moscow’s claim that 65 POWs were on board.

And Ukraine’s Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said relatives of the named POWs were unable to identify their loved ones in crash site photos provided by Russian authorities.

The Ukrainian agency that deals with prisoner exchanges said late Friday that Russian officials had “with great delay” provided it with a list of the 65 Ukrainians who Moscow said had died in the plane crash in Russia's Belgorod region on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s Coordination Staff for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said relatives of the named POWs were unable to identify their loved ones in crash site photos provided by Russian authorities. The agency's update cited Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Lt. Col. Kyrylo Budanov, as saying that Kyiv had no verifiable information about who was on the plane.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that missiles fired from across the border brought down the transport plane that it said was taking the POWs back to Ukraine. Local authorities in Belgorod, which borders Ukraine, said the crash killed all 74 people onboard, including six crew members and three Russian servicemen.

“We currently don’t have evidence that there could have been that many people onboard the aircraft. Russian propaganda’s claim that the IL-76 aircraft was transporting 65 Ukrainian POWs (heading) for a prisoner swap continues to raise a lot of questions,” Budanov said.

Social media users in the Belgorod region posted a video on Wednesday that showed a plane falling from the sky in a snowy, rural area, and a huge ball of fire erupting where it apparently hit the ground.

Kyiv has neither confirmed nor denied that its forces downed a Russian military transport plane that day, and Russia's claim that the crash killed Ukrainian POWs couldn't be independently verified. On Friday, Mykola Oleshchuk, Ukraine’s air force commander, described Moscow’s assertion as “rampant Russian propaganda.”

Ukrainian officials earlier this week confirmed that a prisoner swap was due to happen on Wednesday, but said it was called off. They said Moscow didn't ask for any specific stretch of airspace to be kept safe for a certain length of time, as it has for past prisoner exchanges.

An International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson in Ukraine urged Russia on Friday night to return the bodies of any POWs who might have died in the plane crash.

In a live interview with the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Red Cross Media Relations Officer Oleksandr Vlasenko also remarked that “very little time” had passed between the initial reports of the crash and Moscow declaring it was ready to return the bodies of the Ukrainian POWs.

While Ukraine and Russia regularly exchange the bodies of dead soldiers, each trade has required considerable preparation, Vlasenko said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for an international investigation into the crash, but Russia has sole access to the crash site and is unlikely to allow one to go ahead.

President Vladimir Putin pledged on Friday to make the findings of Moscow’s crash investigation public. In his first public remarks about the crash, Putin repeated previous comments by Russian officials that “everything was planned” for a prisoner exchange that day when the aircraft went down.

“Knowing (the POWs were aboard), they attacked this plane. I don’t know whether they did it on purpose or by mistake, through thoughtlessness,” Putin said of Ukraine at a meeting with students in St. Petersburg.

He offered no details to support the allegation that Kyiv was to blame, but said the plane’s flight recorders had been found.

“There are black boxes, everything will now be collected and shown,” Putin said.