Pro-Russian gunmen shot down a Ukranian military transport plane today in the separatist east, killing all 49 people on board in the biggest single loss of life in the two-month insurgency. The early morning downing near the airport of the rebel stronghold city of Lugansk came a day after Ukrainian forces notched their biggest success of their deadly campaign to reunify the splintered nation by reclaiming control of a strategic southeastern industrial port.
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.
A massive second burst of light lit up the horizon when the plane apparently exploded upon hitting the ground while approaching the Lugansk airport. "The terrorists cynically and treacherously fired with a large-calibre machinegun hitting an Ilyushin-76 of the Ukrainian air force which was carrying troops on rotation and was about to land at Lugansk airport," the ministry said in a statement.
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.
An AFP correspondent heard heavy fighting and a series of loud explosions in the hours preceding the downing in Lugansk, a city of 400,000 lying just 25 kilometres west of the Russian border. The city 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 troops serving in the campaign.
But 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.