A pro-Russian fighter carries parts of weapons from the site of remnants of a downed Ukrainian army aircraft Il-76 at the airport near Luhansk, Ukraine, Saturday, June 14, 2014.
KIEV — Using highly sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, Kremlin-backed rebels shot down a Ukrainian Ilyushin-76 military-transport aircraft, as it prepared to land at an airport in the eastern city of Luhansk early Saturday, killing all 49 servicemen on board.
The setback marks the largest loss of Ukrainian troops in a single incident since the government began its “anti-terrorist operation” in April to purge pro-Russian insurgents from its eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions. In all, since the start of the operation, at least 115 servicemen have been killed.
Meanwhile, gunmen ambushed a convoy of Ukrainian border guards on the outskirts of the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which military forces reclaimed from separatists on Friday. In addition, security services in Kiev foiled an attempt to assassinate the newly elected Ukrainian president.
“On approach to the Luhansk airport, a Ukrainian armed forces military transport Il-76 airplane was shot down with an anti-aircraft rocket system,” the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said in a statement. “In addition to the nine crew members, 40 military personnel were on board. All of them died.”
Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a former defense minister, told Mashable by phone that the nine crew members killed aboard the four-engine transport plane were part of the Melitopol transport brigade.
The prosecutor general’s office said it had opened an investigation into the “terrorist act” carried out in Luhansk, a regional capital with some 450,000 residents, which has been controlled by separatists who have occupied key buildings and erected checkpoints around the city.
On May 11, separatists in Luhansk held a slapdash and illegal vote on secession from Ukraine, proclaiming it to be a new independent republic. In the weeks following the vote, separatist gunmen have seized strategic military bases from Ukrainian troops, and taken control of several border crossings used to transport fighters and weapons from Russia into Ukraine.
In a statement, newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed his deep condolences to the families of the fallen troops and border servicemen who died during the anti-terrorist operation.
“I will make Sunday the mourning day for our military men. This is a great loss not just for the families of the dead, but the whole country. Ukraine is in sorrow, but we decisively continue to fight for peace,” Poroshenko said.
The president also promised to avenge the deaths of the fallen soldiers. “All those involved in the cynical terrorist act of such a magnitude, will inevitably be punished. Ukraine needs peace. But the terrorists will get an adequate response,” he said.
Poroshenko added that he had ordered Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council to meet to discuss the issue of a response, and had ordered the cabinet to provide assistance to the families of the dead.
Video released on Saturday filmed by a CCTV camera mounted on a building near the Luhansk airport shows two separate explosions lighting up the night sky near the landing strip, where the military cargo plane was preparing to land around 1:10 a.m., local time. The first is believed to be a hit from a surface-to-air missile, though no missile can be seen, while the second is likely to be the moment of impact.
The plane was carrying troops being rotated into eastern Ukraine, as well as military equipment and food, Ukraine's Ministry of Defence reported.
A second video purportedly shows the burning wreckage of the plane after the crash.
To hit a moving plane in darkness is incredibly challenging, and requires professional-grade skill, even with advanced weapons such as the Russian-made “Ilga,” or “needle,” man-powered air-defense systems (MANPADS), which experts say were fired at the IL-76 transport plane.
Dmitry Tymchuk, a military analyst and head of the Kyiv-based non-governmental organization Information Resistance, reported that Ukrainian anti-terrorist operation forces discovered at insurgent positions near the airport three “Igla” MANPADS believed to have been used to down the IL-76.
Two empty “Igla” MANPADS tubes believed to have fired the missiles that hit the IL-76 plane were found there, Tymchuk added. A third, believed to be defective, was found with the missile still intact.
Pro-Russian insurgents in recent weeks have shown off their weapons caches to interested media, including Mashable, explaining that they acquired the guided-missiles systems from Ukrainian arsenals.
But Ukrainian authorities and U.S. State Department officials as recently as Friday said that Russia has sent tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as heavy weapons, across the border to separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“This is unacceptable,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokesperson, said on Friday. “A failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.
The U.S. and the European Union have slapped sanctions on Russians and Russian companies they believe played a role in the annexation of Crimea in March, and are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine. But many experts believe the sanctions have done little to deter Moscow from tacitly -– if not outrightly -– supporting separatism.
Moscow on several occasions has denied supporting the insurgency, and called on the Kiev government to put a stop to its “punitive” military operation in the east.
Timothy Ash, an analyst at Standard Bank in London, called the downing of the transport plane a “significant development” that could lead to serious implications for Russia, including harsher sanctions.
“The loss of a large transport aircraft, perhaps with large numbers of Ukrainian troops on board, will refocus attention on the fact that Russia does not seem to be doing very much to moderate the insurgency and cross border re[garding] supply of separatists,” Ash wrote in a memo obtained by Mashable.
“The comments from U.S. officials are now quite specific, and I would expect the focus to return to sanctions next week. I understand that U.S. officials have been working with U.S. allies on looking at further and quite specific further sanctions, which can be deployed against Russia if it does not help stabilize the situation in Ukraine. The comments from U.S. officials suggest that Russia is still not adopting a constructive approach in Ukraine, even the opposite, and that there are likely to be consequences for Russia as a result.
“Russia may try and deflect this risk by offering language, which might imply a willingness to engage in peace talks, but I think the U.S. will now call for specific actions from Moscow to de-escalate, rather than mere rhetoric,” Ash said.
Meanwhile, in Mariupol, a key port city of more than 450,000 people that rests on the bank of the Azov sea in Donetsk region, separatist gunmen ambushed Ukrainian border guards, killing three and wounding four others, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency, citing Ukraine's State Border Guard Service spokesperson Oleh Slobod.
Also on Saturday, an apparent attempt to assassinate Poroshenko was foiled when security services discovered and neutralized an explosive device near the Presidential Administration of Ukraine in Kiev.
“The device was found during the night near the gate where presidential cars go in. It was a container with five grenades and a kilogram of metal nuts,” Reuters cited a source who declined to be identified as saying. “It was a really powerful device.”
Poroshenko was sworn in last Saturday, June 7, a week after winning in the first round of early elections held on May 25. His predecessor, the disgraced Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted in February after fleeing to Russia amid anti-government protests in Kiev.