x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rebels down Ukraine military plane, killing 49

Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko has vowed to deliver an 'adequate response' the rebels

LUGANSK, Ukraine // Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane on Saturday, killing all 49 troops on board in the biggest single loss of life in the two-month insurgency.

The attack came hours before high-level Moscow and Kiev officials were expected to meet in the Ukrainian capital for 11th-hour gas negotiations aimed at averting an imminent cut in Russian supplies that would also impact large swathes of Europe.

Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, elected last month, vowed to deliver an “adequate response” the rebels.

“Those involved in this cynical act of terror on such a scale will certainly be punished. Ukraine needs peace. But the terrorists will receive an adequate response,” Mr Poroshenko said.

The early morning attack near the airport of the rebel stronghold city of Lugansk came a day after Ukrainian forces notched their biggest success in a campaign to reunify the splintered nation by reclaiming control of Mariupol, a strategic industrial port.

The United States on Friday accused Russia of helping in the insurgency by sending tanks and rocket launchers to the pro-Moscow rebels, a charge denied by the Kremlin.

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.

Closed-circuit camera footage of the attack on the transport plane 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.

About 30 seconds later, a massive second burst of light lit up the horizon when the plane apparently exploded upon hitting the ground while approaching Lugansk airport.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s self-proclaimed “anti-terrorist operation” said the plane was carrying nine crew members and 40 paratroopers.

“They all died,” the spokesman said. The four-engine jet was also carrying military equipment.

Militants in Lugansk claimed rebel responsibility for the attack, telling Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency the plane had been downed with a surface-to-air missile.

Ukrainian forces suffered still more casualties Saturday when pro-Russian gunmen ambushed a convoy of border guard patrol vehicles in Mariupol, killing three servicemen and wounding four.

The Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjoern Jagland said he was “shocked and deeply concerned” by the attack and said the new pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko could “count on our support”.

The French foreign ministry expressed its “solidarity with the authorities and the Ukrainian people”.

Heavy fighting and a series of loud explosions in the hours preceding the 1am downing in Lugansk, a city of 400,000 lying just 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of the Russian border.

The industrial centre 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 equipment and troops serving in the campaign.

Yet 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.

Mr Poroshenko’s troubles have been compounded by the threat of Ukraine being cut off from economically vital Russian gas shipments as early as Monday morning because of a bitter price dispute.

Ukraine receives half its gas supplies from Russia and transports 15 per cent of the fuel consumed in Europe. Moscow had nearly doubled the price it charges Kiev for the fuel in the wake of the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.

The head of Ukraine’s state energy firm said Kiev was ready to make a $1.95-billion (Dh7.16bn) payment demanded by Moscow by Monday morning if Russia agreed to cut its price to $326 from $485.50 for 1,000 cubic metres of gas, but Russia had on Friday rebuffed EU efforts to set up last-gasp negotiations in Kiev.

Russia had said that a price of $385 per 1,000 cubic metres was its final offer.

But Ukraine’s Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan said that “the Russian side has given its preliminary agreement to attend” new EU-brokered talks in Kiev on Saturday.

Russia’s state gas firm Gazprom confirmed making preparations for new talks in Kiev, but also struck a defiant tone.

“We are ready to search for a compromise, but putting pressure on us is of no use,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov told RIA Novosti.

* Agencies