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Ukraine: rebels downed plane

UPDATED 10:45 A.M.

Pro-Russia separatists shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane Saturday, killing all 49 crew and troops aboard in a bloody escalation of the conflict in the country's restive east.

It was a bitter setback for the Ukrainian forces — the deadliest single incident yet in their battle against an armed insurgency that the government, backed by the U.S., says is supported by Russia. It also came only a week after the new president, billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, spoke about a peace plan in his inaugural address.

Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of Ukraine's national security council and declared Sunday a day of national mourning.

Afterward, the president scolded the head of the country's SBU security service, referring to "omissions" in measures to protect military aircraft from attack. He called for "a detailed analysis of the reasons" and hinted that personnel changes were imminent.

In the southern port of Mariupol, five border guards were killed and seven wounded Saturday when their column of vehicles was ambushed, the guards service said.

The U.S. government reiterated its support for Poroshenko's government and rejected Russia's statements that it was not arming the rebels. The U.S. said Russia had sent tanks and rocket launchers to the rebels, making sure the unmarked tanks were of a type not currently being used by Russian forces.

"We condemn the shooting down of the Ukrainian military plane and continue to be deeply concerned about the situation in eastern Ukraine, including by the fact that militant and separatist groups have received heavy weapons from Russia, including tanks, which is a significant escalation," said White House spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande called Russian President Vladimir Putin to express their "dismay" over the downing of the plane and said the incident makes clear how urgent a cease-fire is, German government spokesman Georg Streiter said in a statement.

Merkel stressed that, for a cease-fire to last, Russia must effectively control its border with Ukraine to stem the flow of weapons and fighters, and the Russian government must also exert its influence on pro-Russia rebels.

Analysts said the downing of the plane could bring a renewed emphasis on increasing sanctions against Russia.

The incident "will refocus attention on the fact that Russia does not seem to be doing very much to moderate the insurgency (or) the cross-border resupply of separatists," said Timothy Ash, an analyst at Standard Bank PLC.

"Comments from U.S. officials are now quite specific, and I would expect the focus to return to sanctions next week," he said.

Nine crew and 40 troops were aboard the Il-76 troop transport when it went down early Saturday as it approached the airport at Luhansk, the Ukrainian prosecutor general's office said. Defence Ministry spokesman Bohdan Senyk said the rebels used anti-aircraft guns and a heavy machine-gun to down the plane, while the prosecutor general's office said rebels used an anti-aircraft missile.

Luhansk, a city near the border with Russia, is one of two eastern areas where separatists have seized government buildings and declared independence. Ukrainian forces still control the Luhansk airport.

The plane's tail section lay with other pieces of scorched wreckage in a field near the village of Novohannivka, 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Luhansk. An AP reporter saw a dozen or more armed separatists inspecting the crash site.

The death toll Saturday exceeded the 46 who died after a fire and shootings in Odesa on May 2. At least 40 people also died in fighting at Donetsk airport in late May and a rebel spokesman said the toll on his side that day may have been as high as 100.

The Kyiv government has accused Russia of permitting three tanks to cross the border this week into eastern Ukraine, where they were used by rebels. Russia denies supplying the separatists and says Russians fighting in Ukraine are volunteers.

Moscow did not respond to the tank reports but instead accused the Ukrainian military of violating the border several times, including when a Ukrainian armoured vehicle ventured about 150 metres (yards) Friday into Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned Saturday if the incursions continued it would "take all necessary measures to suppress them."

NATO, meanwhile, released images Saturday that it said showed recent Russian tank movements near the border. It said the tanks seen in eastern Ukraine "do not bear markings or camouflage paint like those used by the Ukrainian military." It said those tactics were used by the Russians who had seized Crimea in March.


The Ukrainian Defence Ministry says that pro-Russian separatists have shot down a large military transport plane in the country's unsettled east and that service personnel aboard were killed.

The statement Saturday on the ministry's website says that the plane was downed as it approached an airport at Lugansk. The statement did not say how many people were on board the Il-76 transport plane, which was carrying service members as well as equipment and food.

The statement said that the rebels "cynically and perfidiously" downed the plane using anti-aircraft guns and heavy calibremachine-guns.

An Il-76 is a four-engine jet that can be used to transport heavy gear and people.

The Canadian Press

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