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JUST IN: Bodies of 77 Ukrainian soldiers repatriated to Kyiv

Ukraine said Friday that Russia had returned the bodies of 77 soldiers, days after the downing of a Russian military plane threw doubt on the future of such exchanges.

This grab taken from a handout footage released by the Russian Investigative Committee on January 26, 2024 shows what investigators say is the Russian IL-76 military transport plane crash site in the Belgorod region. – Russia on January 25, 2024 opened a “terrorism” investigation over a military plane crash near the border with Ukraine after it accused Kyiv of downing the aircraft, which it said had 65 captured Ukrainian soldiers onboard. (Photo by Handout / RUSSIAN INVESTIGATIVE COMMITTEE / AFP)

Ukraine said Friday that Russia had returned the bodies of 77 soldiers, days after the downing of a Russian military plane threw doubt on the future of such exchanges.

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Moscow and Kyiv traded fresh accusations over the crash of the transporter that Russia says was shot down near the rivals’ border, killing 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war.

While Kyiv has not outright denied the claims, officials have appeared to question whether its POWs were on board.

The latest repatriation of bodies appeared unrelated to the downing of the plane, which crashed in a fireball in Russia’s western Belgorod region on Wednesday.

“Preparations for the repatriation had been underway for a long time,” Ukraine’s Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War said in a statement.

Hundreds of captured prisoners have been freed in dozens of exchanges throughout the near two-year war.

But Russia’s claims that Ukraine shot down a plane ferrying Ukrainian detainees had thrown doubts on the future of such exchanges.
– Disputed evidence –

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On Friday, Ukraine was still disputing Russia’s account of how the Ilyushin 76 military transporter crashed.

The Kremlin dismissed the idea of releasing evidence proving that dozens of Ukrainian soldiers had been killed.

“Investigators are working, I have nothing to add on this topic,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked if Russia planned to publish evidence on how Ukraine shot down the plane, and who was on board.

On Thursday, Russia’s Investigative Committee published video footage of what it said was the crash site. It showed a small chunk of plane debris and blurred close-ups of a body.

A second video published Friday showed more of the debris, a forensics team sealing up a body bag and photos of three identification documents it said were dead victims.

Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets dismissed the material released so far by Moscow as “elements of an information propaganda campaign against Ukraine”.

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Kyiv and Moscow have opened criminal investigations, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for an international investigation.

On Wednesday, he accused Moscow of “playing with the lives” of Ukrainian soldiers and their families.

Kyiv has not confirmed or denied its involvement in the crash or said whether it was carrying captured Ukrainian soldiers.

It confirmed that a prisoner exchange was due to take place that day. But it said Moscow had not informed Kyiv that the soldiers would be taken to the border by plane, as it had done in the past.

Ukraine’s army vowed to continue targeting the Russian military in the border area where the plane was downed, in a statement published after the incident.

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