Ukraine says it has intelligence indicating that only five bodies were taken from the crash site of a Russian military transport plane to a nearby morgue, a Ukrainian 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 Kiev reported conflicting reports about the shooting down of the Ilyushin Il-76 on Wednesday in Russia's Belgorod region, which borders eastern Ukraine. Moscow says the plane was carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war, while Kiev says it was carrying Russian missiles to be used in further attacks on Ukraine.
But recent comments show Kiev is increasingly confident that the IL-76 plane that crashed in the village of Jablonovo in Russia's Belgorod region on Wednesday morning may not have been transporting Ukrainian prisoners of war ahead of an exchange, as Moscow claimed.
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Andriy Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine's Defense Intelligence Agency (DI), told CNN that the number of bodies brought to the morgue corresponded to the number of crew members on the plane. “No additional bodies were discovered,” he said.
Moscow claimed all 74 people on board – including six crew members, three military escorts and 65 Ukrainian soldiers – died in the crash. A Russian regional governor released a list of the names of people he said made up the six-person crew.
Pressed by CNN to explain the discrepancy between the number of crew members Russian authorities said were on board and the number of bodies Ukrainian intelligence said had arrived at the morgue on Wednesday, Yusov said he stood by his original comments .
Russia initially failed to provide visual evidence to support his claim that Ukrainian soldiers were on the plane. The first video to emerge from the crash site, some of which was broadcast on Russian state media, appeared to show several bodies on the ground, but there were no images to suggest dozens of deaths.
The Russian Investigative Committee on Thursday released a second video purportedly from the crash site that appears to show human remains in the snow.
The video shows investigators measuring what appears to be a bloody human hand and a severed arm. The video also shows aerial footage of the crash site and remains of the plane in separate clips. It is unclear whether the human remains in the video are in the same location as the plane's remains.
SAR, or Synthetic Aperture, radar images provided by Umbra Lab show the roughly mile-long crash site of the Il-76 plane crash in a field in rural Belgorod Oblast.
CNN has geolocated the two videos of the crash site released by the Russian Investigative Committee, which matches the location of a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image captured by Umbra Space for CNN.
According to CNN's analysis of videos and the SAR image, the plane crashed in a field in rural Belgorod Oblast, north of the small village of Yablonovo.
The SAR image shows a cloud of debris littering the Il-76 crash site. The debris field is nearly a mile long and stretches about 800 feet at its widest point.
Moscow also accused Kiev of shooting down the plane from Ukrainian territory using an anti-aircraft missile system and claimed that the Russian Aerospace Forces' radar equipment detected two Ukrainian missiles. The Ukrainian military command said it considered Russian military aircraft approaching Belgorod to be a legitimate target, but did not confirm that it had fired on the plane.
CNN is unable to independently verify either side's claims.
Traffic police officers block a road near the crash site of the IL-76 plane outside the village of Yablonovo, Russia, on January 24, 2024.
Both Moscow and Kiev agree that a prisoner exchange is planned for Wednesday, about 60 kilometers west of the city of Belgorod. Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said in a television interview on Thursday that the swap was planned and that “representatives of our institution were present.”
However, Yusov said Ukraine had received no notification that the prisoners would be flown to the region and not transported by road or rail. In the only other recent exchange of prisoners of war, which took place earlier this month, Russia sent a de-conflict alert to Ukraine to keep Belgorod airspace clear, Yusov said, which Ukraine had observed.
Yusov also claimed that Russian IL-76 aircraft were often used to transport S-300 missiles to forward positions and that Russia was replenishing its missiles in the Belgorod region after several waves of attacks on the nearby Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Yussov's comments, which cast doubt on Moscow's narrative, echo similar comments made by Mykola Oleshuk, commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, overnight Thursday. “Hentic Russian propaganda is directing a stream of fake information to an external audience in order to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the global community,” he said in a statement.
Russia has not yet provided any evidence that dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war were on board the crashed plane.
Lubinets also called Moscow's unfounded representation “a vivid example of Russia planning in advance an information campaign against Ukraine.” He said he had sent official letters to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) asking whether they had been informed by Russia about a transfer of prisoners of war by air.
Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) launched a criminal investigation into the crash on Thursday. The government's communications agency also called for an international investigation into the incident, saying there was “no evidence that Ukrainian citizens were killed on board” and “Russia's official statements cannot be trusted.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday it was too early to talk about instructions from Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring down the military plane because the investigation was still ongoing.
He called the downing of the IL-76 an “absolutely monstrous act” because the plane was reportedly carrying Ukrainian soldiers “who literally should have been home within a day.”