Ukraine says it has intelligence suggesting only five bodies were delivered from the crash site of a Russian military transport plane to a nearby morgue, a Ukraine military intelligence official told CNN, casting doubt on Moscow’s claim that dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed in the explosion.
Moscow and Kyiv gave conflicting accounts of how the Ilyushin Il-76 was downed Wednesday in Russia’s Belgorod region, which neighbors eastern Ukraine. Moscow says the plane was transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war, while Kyiv says it was carrying Russian missiles to be used in further strikes on Ukraine.
But the latest comments indicate Kyiv’s growing confidence that the IL-76 plane, which crashed Wednesday morning in the village of Yablonovo in Russia’s Belgorod region, may not have been carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war ahead of an exchange, as Moscow claimed.
Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence (DI), told CNN the number of bodies brought to the morgue matched the number of crew members on the plane. “No other bodies were detected,” he said.
Moscow claimed all 74 people on board – comprising six crew members, three military escorts and 65 Ukrainian servicemen – were killed in the crash. A Russian regional governor posted a list of names of the people he said made up the six-person crew.
Pressed by CNN to account for the discrepancy between the number of crew members Russian authorities said were on board and the number of bodies Ukrainian intelligence suggests had arrived at the morgue on Wednesday, Yusov said he stood by his initial comments.
Russia initially failed to produce visual evidence to back up its claims there were Ukrainian soldiers on the plane. The first video that emerged from the crash site, of which some was broadcast on Russia state media, appeared to show several dead bodies on the ground, but no images appeared to suggest there were dozens of fatalities.
The Russian Investigative Committee released a second video on Thursday, which they claim is from the crash site, and appears to show human remains in the snow.
The video shows investigators measuring what appears to be a bloody human hand and a dismembered arm. In separate clips, the video also shows aerial footage of the crash site and remnants of the plane. It is unclear if the human remains in the video are in the same location as the remnants of the plane.
CNN geolocated the two videos released by Russia’s Investigative Committee of the crash site, which matches the location of a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image taken by Umbra Space for CNN.
The plane came down in a field in rural Belgorod oblast, just north of the small village of Yablonovo, according to CNN’s analysis of videos and the SAR image.
The SAR image shows a sprawl of debris littering the crash site of the Il-76. The debris field is just under a mile long, and stretches about 800 feet at its widest point.
More claims from Moscow
Moscow also accused Kyiv of downing the plane with an anti-aircraft missile system from Ukrainian territory, claiming the radar equipment of the Russian Aerospace Forces detected two Ukrainian missiles. Ukraine’s military command said it regarded Russian military aircraft approaching Belgorod as legitimate target, but did not confirm it had fired at the plane.
CNN is unable to independently verify the claims made by the two sides.
Both Moscow and Kyiv agree that a prisoner exchange had been planned for Wednesday, with the swap due to take place some 60 kilometers west of Belgorod city. Ukraine’s ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said Thursday in a televised interview that the swap was planned and the “representatives of our institution were present.”
But Yusov said Ukraine had not received notification that the prisoners would be flown into the region, rather than being transferred by road or rail. In the only other recent prisoner of war exchange, which happened earlier this month, Russia had sent a deconfliction alert to Ukraine to keep Belgorod’s airspace free, Yusov said, which Ukraine had observed.
Yusov also claimed that Russian IL-76 aircraft were often used to carry S-300 missiles to forward positions, and that Russia was restocking its missiles in Belgorod region after several waves of attacks on the nearby Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Yusov’s comments, which cast doubt on the account given by Moscow, echo similar remarks made overnight into Thursday by Mykola Oleschuk, commander of the Ukrainian air force. “Frantic Russian propaganda is directing a stream of fake information to an external audience in an attempt to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the world community,” he said in a statement.
Lubinets also called Moscow’s unsubstantiated account “a vivid example of Russia planning an information campaign against Ukraine in advance.” He said he has sent official letters to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) asking whether they were informed by Russia about a transfer of prisoners of war by plane.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) on Thursday launched a criminal investigation into the crash. The government communications body also urged for an international investigation into the incident, saying “there is no evidence that any Ukrainian citizens were killed on board” and that “Russian official statements cannot be trusted.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday it is too soon to talk about instructions from Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the military plane crash as an investigation is still underway.
He called the downing of the IL-76 an “absolutely monstrous act” since the plane was allegedly carrying Ukrainian servicemen “who should have been at home literally in a day.”
CNN’s Lauren Kent and Paul P. Murphy contributed reporting.
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