A Russian military transport plane crashed in a border region near Ukraine on Wednesday and Moscow accused Kiev of shooting it down and said all 74 people on board were killed, including 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war en route to an exchange be. Russia did not provide any evidence and Ukraine neither immediately confirmed nor denied it.
A video of the crash posted on social media from Russia's border region of Belgorod showed a plane falling from the sky in a snowy rural area and a huge fireball erupting where it apparently hit the ground.
The Associated Press could not confirm who was on board or provide further details about what led to the plane's crash. During the 700-Day War, Russia and Ukraine have made conflicting accusations, and establishing the facts has often been difficult, both because of the constraints of a war zone and because each side tightly controls information.
In a statement, the Russian Defense Ministry said the Il-76 transport plane was carrying 65 prisoners of war, a crew of six and three Russian soldiers. It said Russian radar detected the firing of two missiles from Ukraine's Kharkiv region, which borders Belgorod.
A U.S. official said it was not clear whether there were actually Ukrainian prisoners of war on board the crashed plane. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and to provide details that have not been publicly disclosed.
Hours after the crash, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine made no mention of the crash in a statement. But it added that Ukraine attacks Russian military transport planes believed to be firing missiles, particularly near the border.
Russia lost two fighter jets and two helicopters in its own airspace in one day in May 2023. Kiev officials initially denied involvement but later said they had used Patriot missiles to hit the plane.
The Kharkiv and Belgorod regions have long been at the center of fighting between the neighbors, including airstrikes with missiles and drones.
AP correspondent Charles de Ledesma reports.
First responders rushed to the crash site in the Korochansky district of Belgorod, the state news agency Tass reported, citing an emergency service employee. The Defense Ministry in Moscow announced that a military commission was on site.
The Russian military said the prisoners of war were being flown to the region for a prisoner exchange when the plane was shot down at 11:15 a.m. local time (08:15 a.m. GMT; 3:15 a.m. EST). According to the Russian Military Export Agency, the Il-76 is designed to transport up to 225 soldiers, cargo, military equipment and weapons.
Ukrainian military intelligence confirmed an exchange would take place but said it had no information about who was on the crashed Russian plane. Moscow did not ask to keep a specific airspace safe for a specific period of time, as it had done in previous discussions, it said in a statement.
Russian officials and lawmakers expressed outrage and questioned whether there should be further prisoner exchanges. The latest operation, brokered by the United Arab Emirates, took place this month and was the largest to date: 230 Ukrainian prisoners of war returned home and 248 Russians were released. It was the first in almost five months and the 49th of the war.
Russia largely secured its air sovereignty during the war against Ukraine's fleet of Soviet-era fighter jets. But Russia has suffered a series of crashes that some observers attribute to a higher number of flights amid fighting in Ukraine.
At the same time, Kiev has boasted of shooting down two Russian commando planes, which would be a major achievement for Ukraine if true. Cross-border attacks in Russia's Belgorod region have also increased, with the deadliest attack killing 25 people in December.
Shortly before the crash, Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on his Telegram channel that a “missile alarm” had been sounded in the region.
Ukraine's Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said it was investigating the crash but did not immediately provide any information. Instead, it warned against sharing “unverified information.”
“We emphasize that the enemy is actively conducting information special operations against Ukraine aimed at destabilizing Ukrainian society,” said a statement on Telegram.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters this morning that he could not comment on the crash because he did not have enough information about it. There was no comment from the Kremlin later in the day.
The war's 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) front line is largely static amid a second winter of fighting. As both sides seek to replenish their weapons supplies, the war has recently focused on long-range attacks.
Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 18 people were killed and 130 injured in a heavy Russian missile attack on Tuesday.
The barrage, which used more than 40 ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and guided missiles, hit 130 residential buildings in three Ukrainian cities, “all normal houses,” Zelenskyy said on X, formerly Twitter.
Russia's attack, which also included targets in Kiev and the second-largest city of Kharkiv, was the heaviest in weeks and gave weight to Zelensky's appeals to Western allies for more military aid.
“This year, the main priority is to strengthen air defense to protect our cities and towns and defend front-line positions,” Zelensky wrote on Tuesday.
Analysts say Russia stockpiled missiles to carry out airstrikes through a winter, while Ukraine tried to attack inside Russia with new types of drones.
Russia may have used decoy missiles in Tuesday's attack to open gaps in Ukraine's air defenses, a U.S. think tank said.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Moscow is likely trying to acquire more ballistic missiles from abroad, including Iran and North Korea, because they could be more effective in certain circumstances.
Another barrage of Russian S-300 missiles hit residential areas of Kharkiv late Tuesday, injuring nine people and damaging residential buildings, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said.
Russia denies that its troops are attacking civilian areas, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.
Also on Wednesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said its air defenses shot down four Ukrainian drones in the Oryol region in western Russia. Oryol Mayor Yuri Parachin said several drones were shot down over the city without causing any casualties.
According to Gladkov, another Ukrainian drone was shot down over the border region of Belgorod early Wednesday. He said there were no injuries or damage.
Ukraine's allies have promised more military aid even as their resources are exhausted. Aid from the United States, by far Ukraine's single largest provider, has also raised political problems.
The German Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that it plans to send six Sea King Mk41 helicopters to Ukraine.
Pentagon correspondent Tara Copp contributed from Washington.
This story has been updated to correct that Zelensky spoke about the death toll from rocket attacks late Tuesday, not Wednesday.
Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine