Ukraine plane ‘likely’ shot down from Russia

Fragments of a Ukrainian AN-26 transport aircraft near the small eastern village of Davido-Nikolsk, in the Lugansk region, on Monday.

Fragments of a Ukrainian AN-26 transport aircraft near the small eastern village of Davido-Nikolsk, in the Lugansk region, on Monday.

KIEV: Ukraine’s defense minister said on Monday that a Ukrainian AN-26 plane, taking part in the military campaign against separatist rebels, had been shot down by a rocket which was “probably” fired from Russian territory, the presidential website said.

Crew members from the military transport plane had been in contact with the army’s general staff, the minister, Col. General Valery Heletey, was quoted as saying. They were believed to be two in number, an interior ministry adviser said.

There was no word on casualties, but a military spokesman asked by Reuters if he could confirm that everyone on board was alive, replied: “No.” The spokesman, Vladyslav Seleznyov, said a search and rescue operation was under way in the area which is close to the border with Russia, south-east of the town of Luhansk, and has been the scene of heavy fighting with rebels.

Heletey, quoted by the presidential website, said that the plane was flying at a height of 6,500 meters and therefore could not have been brought down by weapons used by the separatists.

“So the plane was brought down by another more powerful rocket weapon which was fired, probably, from the territory of the Russian Federation,” he was quoted as saying.

The incident took place amid an angry exchange between Kiev and Moscow which has accused Ukrainian government forces of firing a shell over the border at the weekend and hitting a residential area and killing a Russian man and injuring a woman.

Kiev has denied their forces were responsible.

Meanwhile fighting intensified Monday around the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk as government forces stepped up efforts to disrupt rebel lines and reclaim more territory from the faltering insurgency. One resident said panic was gripping the city.

In the last two weeks, the government has halved the territory held by pro-Russia separatists, who have been forced back into strongholds around the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Those two mostly Russian-speaking regions have declared independence from the government in Kiev.

Despite reports of military successes, however, Ukraine’s president announced he has more evidence that Russia has directly supported a separatist insurgency against his government that is dragging into its fourth month.

The Defense Ministry said Monday that government troops had retaken several villages around the rebel-controlled city of Luhansk and had reopened a corridor to its civilian airport.

“Due to successful offensives by forces in the Donetsk region, some militants are trying to leave the city,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Rebels, however, insisted their fighting capabilities remain strong.

A spokeswoman for the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic told The Associated Press that they destroyed a Ukrainian armed convoy in the village of Heorhiivka, 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of the airport. She says at least three Ukrainian soldiers were killed in that clash.

Government defense officials said their troops have taken control of several areas on the fringe of Luhansk — including Metalist, Oleksandrivsk, Bile and Rozkishne. Those residential areas are north, west and south of the city, suggesting the government’s plan to form a security cordon around Luhansk has yielded results.

The leader of the military wing of the insurgency, Igor Girkin, also known by his nom de guerre Strelkov, had over the weekend predicted a bitter fight for Luhansk, a city of 400,000, and estimated that Ukrainian forces had deployed up to 70 tanks in the offensive.

One Luhansk resident, Sergei, who declined to give his last name due to fears of reprisal, told The Associated Press that panic had gripped the city Monday due to reports that Ukrainian paratroopers were intermittently entering the city center and detaining rebel fighters.

Exit points from the city have been blocked and militiamen are confiscating cars and belongings from residents attempting to flee, he said.

The Defense Ministry also said rebels were routinely commandeering cars from civilians in the separatist areas, but it was not immediately possible to confirm those claims.

The government in Kiev has insisted that that the separatists are receiving substantial manpower and military equipment from Russia, a charge Russia has always denied.

“In the last three days, Ukraine’s armed forces have been attacked with Russian multiple-rocket launchers,” President Petro Poroshenko said Monday at a meeting of his security officials.

Poroshenko also said there’s evidence that officers with Russian army have been involved in the hostilities but he did not elaborate.


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