The wreckage of the plane that went down near Yablonovo, Belgorod region, Russia.
Image: RUSSIAN INVESTIGATIVE COMMITEE HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
The Russian Il-76 transport plane full of Ukrainian PoWs downed over Belgorod region on January 24 was targeted using an American-made Patriot missile system, Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced, citing the findings of Russian investigators, Sputnik informs.
"The plane was shot down by the American Patriot system. This has already been established for certain in an expert review," Putin said, speaking to election campaign surrogates in St. Petersburg.
Putin accused authorities in Kiev of trying to provoke Russia into a retaliatory response, but emphasized that Russia would not stop prisoner exchanges in spite of the provocation.
"Will [the shootdown] stop exchanges? We will not stop exchanges. We have to free our guys," Putin said. "We will continue to bring our guys home, if the Ukrainian side is ready, of course."
The president estimated the ratio of Ukrainian PoWs held by Russia in relation to Russian PoWs held by Ukraine is as much as ten to one, and that there are "thousands" of Ukrainian PoWs held by Russia, compared to "dozens" held by Ukraine.
"The Ukrainian authorities dropped the phrase somewhere that they would like to conduct an international investigation" into the Il-76 shootdown, Putin said. "We are asking for this, and insist that an international investigation be carried out." Unfortunately, no relevant international organizations have shown readiness to do so to date, the Russian president added.
"I would like to take this opportunity to officially state – we officially ask that international experts be sent and conduct an analysis, evaluate the available material evidence that the plane was shot down using the Patriot missile system fired from a specific place and at a specific time," Putin said.
Instead, he said, Western officials and media have been "trying to hush" the incident up.
"Just look, what's being said in Western media? Nothing. A snap of the fingers and immediately everyone just forgets, everything immediately goes away, the information space is immediately cleared. But we will not forget about the crimes they are committing against our citizens," Putin said.
Putin confided that he doesn't fully "understand" why Ukraine shot down the Russian plane, suggesting that the crime may have been designed "to divert the attention of their own population and sponsors from the failures of the so-called counteroffensive, to show that they can still 'do something', to provoke us into retaliatory mirror attacks on civilian, peaceful targets inside Ukraine. Instead, we are using high-precision weapons to hit infrastructure facilities, military targets first and foremost, those of the military industry. They want to provoke us to retaliate. That's my guess," he said.
Six Russian Il-76 crewmembers, three Russian servicemen and 65 Ukrainian PoWs perished on January 24 after their plane was shot down over eastern Belgorod region while on route to a planned prisoner exchange. The Russian Defense Ministry immediately accused Kiev of deliberately shooting down the aircraft, saying Ukraine's leadership "knew very well that, in accordance with established... Ukrainian military personnel" were to be "transported by military transport aircraft to the Belgorod airfield" for an exchange.
Ukrainian officials and media issued a series of contradictory statements on the incident, with media first confirming that the plane had been shot down by Ukrainian air defenses, but later scrubbing the information. President Zelensky accused Russia of "playing with the lives" of Ukrainian PoWs and called for an "international investigation" into the incident. However, Ukraine's General Staff claimed that the plane was carrying weapons, and said it would "continue to take measures to destroy the missile delivery means" used by Russia, "including in the Belgorod-Kharkov direction." Separately, Ukraine's military intelligence confirmed that a prisoner swap had been scheduled the day the plane was shot down.
The US sent several Patriot missile batteries to Ukraine last spring in a bid to shore up defenses against Russian precision strikes targeting military and energy infrastructure. The complex, marginally mobile systems are typically deployed around major cities. However, the Russian MoD indicated last week that the Il-76 was targeted by missiles fired from an area near the village of Liptsy in Kharkov region, about 15 km north of the city of Kharkov, and 5 km from the Russian border, suggesting that the Patriot may have been moved to the region ahead of the provocation.
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