AP/ PTI

Russia says a plane carrying 65 Ukrainian POWs crashed; all aboard died

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Moscow: A military transport plane that Russia said was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war crashed Wednesday in a Russian region near Ukraine. All aboard were killed, according to the governor.

It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the crash in the Belgorod region. Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov didn’t specify how many people were on the plane or who they were.

The Associated Press could not confirm who was on board, and Ukrainian officials cautioned against sharing unverified information.

Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, citing the ministry, reported that the POWs were being transported to the border region for a prisoner exchange.

Footage of the crash posted on social media showed a plane falling from the sky in a snowy, rural area, and a massive ball of fire erupting where it apparently hit the ground.

Firefighters, ambulances and police rushed to the site of the crash in the Korochansky district of Belgorod, state news agency Tass said, citing a local emergency services official.

Two senior Russian lawmakers alleged, without providing evidence, that the plane was brought down by missiles launched by Ukrainian forces.

Shortly before the crash, Vyacheslav Gladkov, Belgorod’s governor, said on his Telegram channel that a “missile alert” had been triggered in the region and warned residents to take shelter.

Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said it was looking into the crash but did not immediately provide any information. Instead, it cautioned against sharing “unverified information.”

“We emphasize that the enemy is actively conducting information special operations against Ukraine aimed at destabilising Ukrainian society,” it said in a statement on Telegram.

A special military commission was on the way to the crash site, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, which said that, in addition to the POWs, three people accompanying them and six crew were on board.

Speaking on his morning call with reporters, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he could not comment on the crash as he did not have enough information about it.

The plane is designed to airlift troops, cargo, military equipment and weapons. It can carry up to 225 troops, according to Russia’s military export agency.

The Russian air force has suffered a string of crashes that some observers have attributed to a higher number of flights amid the fighting in Ukraine.

Seven hundred days after the Kremlin’s forces rolled into Ukraine, the 1,500-km (930-mile) front line largely static amid icy weather. As both sides seek to replenish their weapons stockpiles, the war recently has focused on long-range strikes.

Earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said a major Russian missile attack on Tuesday had killed 18 people and injured 130.

The barrage, employing more than 40 ballistic, cruise, anti-aircraft and guided missiles hit 130 residential buildings in three Ukrainian cities, “all ordinary houses,” Zelenskyy said on X, formerly Twitter.

Russia’s onslaught, which included targets in the capital Kyiv and second-largest city Kharkiv, was the heaviest in weeks and lent weight to Zelenskyy’s appeals for Western allies to provide more military aid.

“This year, the main priority is to strengthen air defence to protect our cities and towns, as well as defend frontline positions,” Zelenskyy said on X late Tuesday.

Analysts say Russia stockpiled missiles to pursue a winter campaign of aerial bombardment, while Ukraine has sought to strike inside Russia with new types of drones.

Russia may have employed decoy missiles in Tuesday’s attack in an effort to open up holes in Ukraine’s air defences, a US think tank said.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Moscow is likely trying to acquire more ballistic missiles from foreign countries, including Iran and North Korea, because they may be more effective in some circumstances.

A further barrage of Russian S-300 missiles struck residential districts of Kharkiv late Tuesday, injuring nine people and damaging residential buildings, regional Governor Oleh Syniehubov said.

Russia denies its forces strike civilian areas, although there is substantial evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defence Ministry said that air defences shot down four Ukrainian drones over the Oryol region of western Russia early Wednesday.

Oryol Mayor Yuri Parakhin said that several drones were downed over the city. He said there were no casualties, but windows were shattered in several apartment buildings in the city.

Another Ukrainian drone was downed early Wednesday over the Belgorod border region, according to regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov. He said there were no casualties or damage.

Ukraine’s allies have promised to keep sending military aid packages, even though their resources are stretched. Help from the United States, by far Ukraine’s single biggest provider, has also hit political snags.

The German defence ministry announced Wednesday that it plans to send six SEA KING Mk41 multi-role helicopters to Ukraine. (AP)

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