High-ranking Russian officials were meant to be on board the military aircraft shot down on Wednesday, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency claimed.
Andriy Yusov, the spokesman for the defence ministry’s main directorate of intelligence, claimed a number of “VIPs” had been warned by the Russian federal security service (FSB) “at the last moment” not to board the aircraft, which later came down in the Belgorod border region, reportedly killing all 74 people on board.
He also said the remains of just five people were found at the crash site, contradicting Russia’s claim that the Ilyushin Il-76 was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war towards an exchange.
Ukraine has called for an international investigation into the downing of the plane, which crashed to the ground 29 miles north of the Ukrainian border after an apparent missile strike on Wednesday morning.
Russia claims the aircraft was shot down by two Ukrainian rockets in a “terrorist act”.
Moscow claims the Western-supplied missiles were fired from near the village of Lyptsi in Kharkiv, 56 miles to the south-west of the crash site, close to the village of Yablonovo.
But on Thursday, France urged caution about accepting Russia’s version of events.
‘Accustomed us to lying’
Christophe Lemoine, a deputy foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters: “Russia has accustomed us to lying on these matters.”
Mr Yusov said “several VIP officials” from the “military-political representation of the aggressor state” had been due to board the aircraft before it took off, but did not end up doing so because of the FSB’s warning.
He promised to name the officials and provide evidence for the claim to the international investigation into the crash.
Mr Yusov also claimed that “only five bodies ended up in the morgue in Belgorod”, a number which he said equals the number of crew needed to man the aircraft.
He added that video footage and photographs from the crash site did not show any human remains and that the FSB and military ordered officials from the ministry of emergency situations to leave the crash site before they had completed their investigation.
Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, also dismissed Russia’s claim that 65 POWs were on board.
He agreed with Mr Yusov that photographs and videos from the crash site showed no “signs that there were such a large number of people on the plane”.
Mr Lubinets said he would write to the United Nations and the Red Cross requesting their involvement in the international investigation.
Lt Gen Mykola Oleshchuk, the head of Ukraine’s air force, said Russia had produced a “fake stream of information” about the crash to “discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the international community”.
“The goal is obvious – they want to reduce international support for our country,” he said. “This will not work.”
International investigation ‘definitely needed’
Ukraine’s SBU security service opened a criminal war crimes investigation into the incident on Thursday morning.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said on Thursday morning that an international investigation “was definitely needed”.
Andrei Kartapolov, the chairman of the defence committee in Russia’s lower house, said prisoner swaps with Ukraine would continue despite Moscow’s allegations.
“We can’t abandon our guys and that’s why we will talk even to the devil,” the former Russian army general and deputy defence minister said.
He claimed that Russia had given Ukraine a “15-minute warning” about the flight, a claim which Mr Yusov said was false.
“The aggressor state did not make such requests either in written or verbal form,” Mr Yusov said.
The United Nations Security Council was due to meet to discuss the crash on Thursday.