A Ukraine military transport plane was shot down by pro-Russia rebels near the industrial city of Luhansk late Friday, killing all 49 on board in the most tragic incident in over two months of fighting in southeastern Ukraine, officials said.
“On the night of June 13-14, firing from an anti-aircraft gun and a large-caliber machine gun, terrorists cynically and treacherously shot down a Ukraine armed forces transport plane IL-76 which was bringing personnel for rotation,” said a statement posted on the Defense Ministry’s official website Saturday.
“The plane fell in a farm field near the airport, exploded and burned,” said Vladislav Seleznev, spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. “There were 40 servicemen and nine crew members on board.
“All aboard the downed plane were dead,” Seleznev said.
President Petro Poroshenko declared Sunday a day of mourning across the country, adding that all those involved in the attack “will certainly be punished.”
“Ukraine needs peace but terrorists will get a response they deserve,” Poroshenko said in a statement posted on the presidential website.
The servicemen were members of Dnepropetrovsk Airborne Forces Brigade No. 25, and the nine crew members were from a Melitopol Air Force unit, Anatoly Hrytsenko, a lawmaker and former defense minister, wrote on his Facebook page.
Earlier Saturday a representative of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, which in May declared independence from Ukraine, told RIA-Novosti, a Russian new agency, that its fighters shot down a military plane over the city’s airport.
Component pieces of three Russian-made portable anti-aircraft rockets were found near the airport with an empty can of Russian-made meat preserves, Ukraine military expert Dmitry Tymchuk wrote on his Facebook page Saturday.
Luhansk and most of the region are under the control of pro-Russia gunmen, but the airport is still in the hands of government forces, which regularly repel rebel attacks, media reports say.
Ten trucks presumably carrying Russian mercenaries arrived in Luhansk during the night after crossing the Russian border, a large stretch of which is also under rebel control, UNIAN news agency reported.
Earlier in the week, three T-64 tanks and several armored personnel vehicles crossed the Russian border into Ukraine in the neighboring Donetsk region, Ukraine officials charged.
Ukraine should face the hard facts and declare martial law in the two regions, said Olexiy Haran, a political science professor at Kiev Mohyla University.
“This is not a civil war with some local insurgents but a real war with Russia which keeps sending tanks, portable rockets and other hardware across the border to be used by Russian mercenaries,” Haran said in a phone interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“The tragic downing of our plane and the death of 49 people is yet another example that Russia is waging a war in Ukraine and that we can’t trust a word [Vladimir] Putin says about his peace efforts.”
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.