A pro-Russian fighter guards the site of remnants of a downed Ukrainian army aircraft Il-76 at the airport near Luhansk, Ukraine, on Saturday. Pro-Russian separatists shot down the military transport plane Saturday in the countrys restive east, killing all 49 service personnel on board, Ukrainian officials said. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)
NOVOHANNIVKA, UKRAINE — 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, which have struggled to suppress an armed insurgency by foes of the new government, and came only a week after the new president, billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, spoke about a peace plan in his inaugural address.
Yet the incident, the deadliest for the Ukrainian military in the four-month-old conflict, suggested the two sides were very much still at odds. Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of Ukraine's national security council and declared Sunday a day of national mourning.
The U.S. government reiterated its support for Poroshenko's government and rejected Russia's statements that it was not arming the rebels. It said Russia clearly 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.
Analysts said the downing of the plane could bring a renewed emphasis on increasing sanctions against Russia.
The loss of the plane "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.
Luhansk is in eastern Ukraine near the border with Russia, an area where separatists have seized government buildings and declared independence. Ukrainian forces still control the Luhansk airport, however.
Defense 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.
The plane's tail section lay with other pieces of scorched wreckage in a field near the village of Novohannivka, 20 kilometers (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 Odessa 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 Kiev 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 who went there on their own.
Moscow did not respond to reports it was sending tanks into Ukraine but instead issued a warning Saturday, accusing the Ukrainian military of violating the border. The Russian Foreign Ministry said if the incursions continued it would "take all necessary measures to suppress them."
The ministry listed several incidents when it said the Ukrainian armed forces crossed into Russian airspace or territory, including on Friday when it said a Ukrainian armored vehicle ventured about 150 meters (yards) into Russia.
NATO, meanwhile released images Saturday that it said showed recent Russian tank movements near the border.
The tanks seen in eastern Ukraine, NATO said, "do not bear markings or camouflage paint like those used by the Ukrainian military. In fact, they do not have markings at all, which is reminiscent of tactics used by Russian elements that were involved in destabilizing Crimea."
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated in February after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office by protesters who wanted closer ties with the European Union and an end to the country's endemic corruption. Russia then seized and annexed Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
The U.S. and Europe rejected the annexation and responded with financial sanctions targeting individuals they deemed to have played a role. They have threatened to further extend the sanctions to the Russian economy.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the Ukraine situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, expressing their "grave concern" over the continued combat in eastern Ukraine. They "stressed the importance of rapidly establishing a ceasefire in Ukraine" and called for measures to de-escalate the fighting.
The statement from Hollande's office also said Hollande and Merkel stressed the need to find an agreement in the natural gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Russia says Ukraine owes billions in unpaid gas debts and has set a deadline of Monday before it will demand upfront payments for gas supplies. Ukraine disputes the debt amount.
The European Union reported that senior officials from Ukraine and Russia, including Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, were holding talks in Kiev later Saturday on the gas issue.