The toll is the highest suffered by government forces in a single
incident since they launched a military operation to halt the
rebellion in east Ukraine against the country's pro-European leaders
in Kiev and to try to prevent the country splitting up.
The Defence Ministry said in a statement the Il-76 plane was shot
down in a "cynical" attack by rebels using an anti-aircraft weapon
and a heavy-caliber machine gun.
It gave no death toll but Vladislav Seleznyov, spokesman for the
military operation in east Ukraine, said by phone: "Forty-nine
people were killed. All were Ukrainian military personnel."
The Prosecutor General's office said nine crew and 40 paratroopers
had been killed and that the plane was hit by an anti-aircraft
missile at 1:10 a.m. (2210 GMT on Friday).
The Luhansk region is at the heart of the rebellion launched in
April by separatists who want Russia to absorb the Russian-speaking
east following the annexation of Crimea in March.
Government forces control Luhansk airport but local media said
fighting was under way on Saturday in the city, control of which is
important for patrolling the nearby border with Russia.
The rebels also said the Ukrainian air force had fired on the
industrial town of Horlivka, just north of region's main city,
Rebels also shot down a military cargo plane last week, killing
three people, and a general was among 14 killed when they hit an
Mi-8 transport helicopter on May 29.
Scores of rebels, civilians and soldiers have been killed in the
violence since April and more than 100 protesters, most of them
seeking closer ties with the West, were killed in clashes with
police in February which led to the fall of Ukraine's Moscow-leaning
The new clashes this week, in which government forces reclaimed the
southeastern port city of Mariupol on Friday, threaten tentative
peace moves since the new president, Petro Poroshenko, was sworn in
a week ago.
The breakdown of talks on a dispute over the price Kiev pays for
Russian natural gas has also soured the atmosphere, with Moscow
threatening to cut supplies to Kiev on Monday unless it starts
paying its bills.
U.S. SAYS RUSSIA SENDING IN WEAPONS
Russia fears it is losing influence in Ukraine which was governed
from Moscow in Soviet times and is seen by Russians as the cradle of
their civilization; but it denies being behind the uprising. The
rebels say they get weapons from army stockpiles and warehouses.
[to top of second column]
The U.S. State Department said on Friday, however, that Russia had
sent tanks, heavy weapons and rocket launchers to Ukraine in recent
days in support of separatists.
The assertion by the United States
that Russian tanks had been brought across the border into Ukraine
is likely to deepen strains in the worst standoff between Moscow and
the West since the Cold War ended.
"We assess that separatists in eastern Ukraine have acquired heavy
weapons and military equipment from Russia, including Russian tanks
and multiple rocket launchers," State Department spokeswoman Marie
Harf said in a statement.
Harf told a briefing earlier that a convoy of three T-64 tanks,
several MB-21 "or Grad" multiple rocket launchers and other military
vehicles had crossed from Russia into Ukraine in the last three
"This is unacceptable," she said. "A failure by Russia to
de-escalate the situation will lead to additional costs."
Evidence that Russia is sending in heavy armor and weapons could
encourage the United States and the EU to impose new sanctions on
Moscow, so far limited largely to visa bans and asset freezes on
some individuals, banks and companies.
Kiev called for new talks to be held on the natural gas dispute over
the weekend but there was no word on Saturday of any meetings being
Ukraine said on Friday it was preparing for supply cuts on Monday,
the deadline for it to settle $1.95 billion in unpaid bills. This
could also disrupt supplies to the EU, as about half of its sizable
gas imports from Russia flow via Ukraine.
(Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice in Donetsk, Writing by
Timothy Heritage; editing by Ralph Boulton)
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