UKRAINE

Pro-Russian rebels shoot down Ukraine military aircraft killing 49: defence ministry

49 killed as Ukrainian rebels in east shoot down military transport flight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 June, 2014, 1:51pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 8:46am

Ukraine's new Western-backed leader vowed yesterday to strike back at pro-Russian rebels who killed 49 troops by downing a military plane in the deadliest attack against federal forces in their two-month insurgency.

The attack came hours before top Moscow and Kiev officials were to meet in the Ukrainian capital for 11th-hour negotiations aimed at averting an imminent cut in Russian gas supplies that would also affect large swathes of Europe.

The United States accused Russia of helping the insurgency by sending tanks and rocket launchers to the rebels - a charge the Kremlin denied.

A Lugansk rebel commander, who showed pieces of the Il-76 transporter's charred debris in a wheat field a dozen kilometres outside the airport, said five militants shot down the plane using machine guns.

Closed-circuit camera footage of the downing showed a small flash flare in the sky when the large Il-76 plane was hit by what Ukrainian officials said was heavy-calibre machinegun fire.

About 30 seconds later, a massive second burst of light lit up the horizon when the plane apparently exploded upon hitting the ground.

A spokesman for the Lugansk militants said the rebels were responsible, telling Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency the plane was downed with a surface-to-air missile.

A spokesman for Ukraine's self-proclaimed "anti-terrorist operation" said the plane was carrying nine crew members and 40 paratroops. "They all died," spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said.

The four-engine jet was also carrying military equipment.

A witness heard heavy fighting and a series of loud explosions in the hours preceding the 1am downing of the aircraft in Lugansk, a city of 400,000 lying just 25km west of the Russian border.

The industrial centre has been under effective rebel control since the eastern uprising began in early April, but Ukrainian forces had managed to hold on to its airport and use it to rotate equipment and troops serving in the campaign.

Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, immediately vowed to punish the guilty and deliver "an adequate response" to the rebels, signifying a possible further escalation of the campaign. He declared today a day of mourning for the nine crew and 40 paratroopers killed.

An irate mob of about 300 in Kiev overturned several cars before tearing down the Russian embassy flag while a dozen city police officers looked on.