Pro-Russian rebels shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane Saturday in the separatist east, killing all 49 troops on board in the biggest single loss of life in the two-month insurgency.
The attack came hours before top 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.
The early morning downing near the airport of the rebel stronghold city of Lugansk came a day after Ukrainian forces notched their biggest success in a deadly campaign to reunify the splintered nation by reclaiming control of the strategic southeastern industrial port of Mariupol.
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.
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.
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,” spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov told AFP by telephone. The four-engine jet was also carrying military equipment.
A spokesman for the Lugansk militants 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.