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Russia and Ukraine exchange blame for a plane carrying Ukrainian prisoners being shot

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Days after a Russian military transport plane went down near the Ukrainian border, questions still linger over what - or who - caused the crash. NPR's Charles Maynes is following developments from Moscow.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: So here's what we do know. This past Wednesday, Russia said an Il-76 military transport plane crashed in the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine, killing all 74 people on board - the vast majority, Russia insisted, Ukrainian prisoners of war. Also this - hours later, Ukraine confirmed a scheduled prisoner swap negotiated with Russia was now suddenly off.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: On Friday, President Vladimir Putin became the most prominent of Russian officials to pin blame squarely on Kyiv for what the Kremlin calls a monstrous act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Knowing its POWs were on board, Ukraine attacked the plane," said Putin. "I don't know whether they did it on purpose or by mistake, but it's still a crime," he added. "One committed using Western-provided weapons." Witness video initially shared by Russian state media and since verified by independent news organizations, captured the plane's final moments, the aircraft descending at a sharp incline before exploding in a massive fireball.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE DESCENDING)

MAYNES: Ukraine has not outright denied it downed the plane, but neither have Ukrainian officials acknowledged any Ukrainian POWs were on board, or that any servicemen died in the crash at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAYNES: Addressing his nation in the aftermath, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanded an international investigation and accused the Kremlin of exploiting the moment for gain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAYNES: "It's obvious the Russians are playing with the lives of Ukrainian prisoners," said Zelenskyy, "playing with the feelings of their relatives and with the emotions of our society."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Meanwhile, Russia's investigative committee released video of blurred-out carnage from the crash. It also published what it claimed were several Ukrainian passports found at the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: President Putin now says, with the plane's flight recorders back in Moscow, Russia's investigation will soon be laid out for all to see, including, Putin insisted, Ukrainians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Amid a war in which information has been a weapon on par with bombs, the facts and truth about the crash in Belgorod now hinge on Kremlin transparency.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles Maynes