Rebels down Ukraine military plane, killing 49

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LUGANSK- Pro-Russian rebels shot down a
Ukrainian military transport plane Saturday in the
separatist east, killing all 49 troops on board in the
biggest single loss of life in the two-month
insurgency.
The attack came hours before top Moscow and
Kiev officials were expected to meet in the
Ukrainian capital for 11th-hour gas negotiations
aimed at averting an imminent cut in Russian
supplies that would also impact large swathes of
Europe.
The early morning downing near the airport of the
rebel stronghold city of Lugansk came a day after
Ukrainian forces notched their biggest success in a
deadly campaign to reunify the splintered nation by
reclaiming control of the strategic southeastern
industrial port of Mariupol.
The United States on Friday accused Russia of
helping in the insurgency by sending tanks and
rocket launchers to the pro-Moscow rebels, a
charge denied by the Kremlin.
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 while
approaching Lugansk airport.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s self-proclaimed “anti-
terrorist operation” said the plane was carrying
nine crew members and 40 paratroopers.
“They all died,” spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov
told AFP by telephone. The four-engine jet was
also carrying military equipment.
A spokesman for the Lugansk militants claimed
rebel responsibility for the attack, telling Russia’s
RIA Novosti state news agency the plane had been
downed with a surface-to-air missile.
Ukraine’s new Western-backed 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.
Ukrainian forces suffered still more casualties
Saturday when pro-Russian gunmen ambushed a
convoy of border guard patrol vehicles in Mariupol,
killing three servicemen and wounding four.
– ‘Shocked and deeply concerned’ –
Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjoern
Jagland said he was “shocked and deeply
concerned” by the attack and said the new pro-
Western President Petro Poroshenko could “count
on our support.”
The French foreign ministry expressed its
“solidarity with the authorities and the Ukrainian
people.”
An AFP correspondent heard heavy fighting and a
series of loud explosions in the hours preceding
the 1:00am downing in Lugansk, a city of 400,000
lying just 25 kilometres (15 miles) 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.
Yet they have been forced to repel an increasingly
frequent series of raids on the air hub by the
gunmen, who had also briefly seized the main
international airport in the neighbouring rebel-held
city of Donetsk at the end of May.
The two-month insurgency is now known to have
claimed at least 320 lives of civilians and fighters
on both sides.
– Monday morning gas cut –
Poroshenko’s troubles have been compounded by
the threat of Ukraine being cut off from
economically vital Russian gas shipments as early
as Monday morning because of a bitter price
dispute.
Ukraine receives half its gas supplies from Russia
and transports 15 percent of the fuel consumed in
Europe. Moscow had nearly doubled the price it
charges Kiev for the fuel in the wake of the
February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.
The head of Ukraine’s state energy firm said Kiev
was ready to make a $1.95-billion (1.45-billion-
euro) payment demanded by Moscow by Monday
morning if Russia agreed to cut its price to $326
from $485.50 for 1,000 cubic metres of gas, but
Russia had on Friday rebuffed EU efforts to set up
last-gasp negotiations in Kiev.
Russia had said that a price of $385 per 1,000
cubic metres was its final offer.
But Ukraine’s Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan told
AFP that “the Russian side has given its
preliminary agreement to attend” new EU-brokered
talks in Kiev on Saturday.
Russia’s state gas firm Gazprom confirmed
making preparations for new talks in Kiev, but also
struck a defiant tone.
“We are ready to search for a compromise, but
putting pressure on us is of no use,” Gazprom
spokesman Sergei Kuprianov told RIA Novosti.
– ‘Russian tanks’ –
The United States on Friday accused Russia of
sending tanks and rocket launchers to the rebels
in the wake of Western-backed tycoon
Poroshenko’s victory in a May 25 presidential
election.
And NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned
that reports of pro-Russian groups acquiring heavy
weapons from Russia would mark a “serious
escalation” of the crisis if confirmed.
Top Ukrainian and Russian envoys have held a
week of discussion in Kiev aimed at brokering a
truce in the conflict and helping repair ties between
the two uneasy ex-Soviet neighbours and are
expected to meet again this weekend.
US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf
raised the prospect of further Western economic
sanctions if Russia failed “to demonstrate its
commitment to peace, to stop weapons and
fighters from crossing into Ukraine, and to
cooperate with Ukraine in the peace plan’s
implementation.”

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