THE shooting down by pro-Russian rebels of a Ukrainian military transport plane yesterday, killing all 49 crew and troops aboard, was the deadliest single incident in the four-month-old conflict in the former Soviet republic.
The Il-76 transport plane, which was also carrying military equipment, crashed after coming under anti-aircraft fire over Luhansk as it was about to land at the city’s airport.
It is a bitter setback for the Ukrainian forces, which have struggled to suppress an armed insurgency by opponents of the new government.
The attack comes a week after Ukraine’s new president, billionaire confectionery magnate Petro Poroshenko, spoke about a peace plan in his inaugural address.
Yet the bloody escalation of the conflict in the east of Ukraine suggests the two sides remain far apart in their demands and talk of de-escalation premature.
The United States, meanwhile, rejected Russia’s statements that it was not arming the separatists, saying Russia clearly had sent tanks and rocket launchers to the rebels, making sure the unmarked tanks were of a type not currently used by Russian forces.
Nine crew and 40 troops were aboard the Il-76 when it was downed early yesterday as it approached the airport at Luhansk, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said.
The Russian-built four-engine jet is used to transport heavy gear and troops.
Luhansk is in eastern Ukraine near the border with Russia, an area where separatists have seized government buildings and declared independence after holding disputed referendums. Ukrainian forces still control Luhansk airport, however.
A defence ministry spokesman in Kiev said rebels used anti-aircraft guns and a heavy machine gun to shoot down the plane, while the prosecutor general’s office mentioned an anti-aircraft missile.
The plane’s tail section lay with other pieces of scorched wreckage in a field near the village of Novohannivka, 12 miles south of Luhansk. A dozen or more armed separatists were seen inspecting debris.
Yesterday’s death toll exceeded the 46 pro-Russians who died after a fire and shootings in Odessa on 2 May and the 12 Kiev troops who died on 29 May when rebels shot down a helicopter near the eastern city of Slovyansk.
The Kiev government has accused Russia of permitting three tanks to cross the border into eastern Ukraine, for use by rebels. Russia denies supplying the separatists.
In Washington, the US State Department said: “Separatists in eastern Ukraine have acquired heavy weapons and military equipment from Russia, including Russian tanks and multiple rocket launchers.
“Russia will claim these tanks were taken from Ukrainian forces, but no Ukrainian tank units have been operating in that area. We are confident these tanks came from Russia.”
Nato released images yesterday that it said showed recent Russian tank movements near the Ukrainian border.
The tanks seen in Ukraine, Nato said, “do not bear markings or camouflage paint like those used by the Ukrainian military. In fact, they do not have markings at all, which is reminiscent of tactics used by Russian elements involved in destabilising Crimea.”
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated in February after pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich was driven from office by protesters who wanted closer ties with the European Union and an end to the country’s endemic corruption.
Russia then annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea after a disputed referendum. The US and Europe rejected the annexation and responded with financial sanctions targeting officials they deemed to have played a role. They have held off on widening the sanctions to the Russian economy but have not ruled that out.
Poroshenko met Russian president Vladimir Putin at D-Day anniversary ceremonies in France and there were reports Russia might take steps to tighten control over its border. Russia says Russian citizens fighting with the Ukrainian separatists are volunteers who have gone there of their own accord.