49 Ukrainian Troops Killed as Rebels Shoot Down Plane

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49 Ukrainian Troops Killed as Rebels Shoot Down Plane

Anti-aircraft fire hit transport plane as it approached in restive Luhansk region

Ukrainian soldiers returning from combat on Friday after pushing back separatist fighters around the port city of Mariupol in the Donetsk region. (Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press)

In what is the deadliest incident for Ukraine soldiers sent from Kiev to battle separatist forces in the east of the country, 49 military personnel were killed on Saturday as their transport plane was shot down by anti-aircraft fire in the city of Luhansk.

Vladislav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the military operation in east Ukraine, told Reuters by phone: "Forty-nine people were killed. All were Ukrainian military personnel."

The latest violence will likely intensify clashes in the eastern regions where Ukrainians opposed to the Kiev government continue to resist its authority as they clamor for autonomy and closer ties with neighboring Russia.

As Reuters reports:

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, Donetsk.

Agence France-Presse reports that An estimated 270 people have been killed in the violence over the past two months.

On Friday, the U.S. government—which has strongly backed the Kiev government and endorsed the newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko—accused Russia of sending weapons into eastern Ukraine. According to the Guardian, "Friday's statement from the U.S. State Department "did not explicitly blame Russia for supplying the weaponry directly to the Ukrainian separatists. But it stated Washington's unequivocal belief that the tanks had crossed the border and hinted at Moscow's complicity."

The Associated Press reports:

NATO released images on Saturday, said to show recent Russian tank movements near the border which "raise significant questions" on Russia's role.

The tanks seen in 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."

Denis Pushilin, a leader of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, told Russian state television Friday that rebels had the tanks but it was "improper to ask" where they got them.

Clashes in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, also on Friday, reveal continued and widespread unrest across those portions of the country with no end in sight. So far, talks between Kiev and separatist leaders in the east have gone nowhere and a tentative financial settlement over gas payments owed by Ukraine to Russia have stalled.

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