A Russian plane allegedly carrying Ukrainian prisoners of war was brought down by a missile fired by Ukrainian air defence, western officials have said.
It can also be disclosed that Iran’s collaboration with Russia in sending drones and missiles has been curtailed as the Tehran regime becomes increasingly distracted by the widening Middle East conflict, a briefing of journalists was told.
It is understood the Ilyushin Il-72 transport aircraft was targeted by a US-supplied Patriot missile system which struck a wing while the plane was close to the front line on January 24.
Moscow claimed 65 Ukrainian PoWs were on board as part of a prisoner swap deal but have yet to produce any evidence.
It also allowed another prisoner exchange to go ahead on Wednesday in which 195 Russians were swapped for 207 Ukrainians in a deal facilitated by the UAE.
Asked if Ukraine's air defence system was responsible for the destruction of the plane, a western official said it was “a missile strike rather than any kind of mechanical failure” and it was “almost certain the missile was fired from Ukrainian territory”.
“Obviously, the aircraft was operating in a pretty volatile area quite close to the front line so was at higher risk,” the official added.
He said it was “not yet clear” whether the Russian claims that it was carrying Ukrainian PoWs was “true or not”.
Ukraine's military intelligence services said Russia had not informed them before the flight to ensure the airspace over Belgorod – close to the border between the warring countries – was safe.
The Il-72 is also said to be capable of carrying a maximum of 60 passengers, although more could potentially be squeezed in.
The potential impact of Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 kamikaze and short-range ballistic missiles on the war in Ukraine is in question due to the widening Middle East conflict.
Early intelligence suggests the arms supply could be affected by the Israel-Gaza war, as Iran was “perhaps more distracted from what they might be doing in support of Russia”, a western official told The National.
A stalemate remains on the front line in Ukraine, although Russia has made minor gains while reportedly suffering significant losses, including 1,000 armoured vehicles, around the eastern city of Avdiivka.
Many were lost as a result of Ukrainian suicide drones, according to the reports.