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Rebels down Ukraine military plane, killing 49

KIEV/LUGANSK, Ukraine -- 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-caliber 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 crewmembers 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.

Ukraine's new Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko immediately vowed to punish the guilty and deliver “an adequate response” to the rebels, signifying a possible further escalation of the campaign.

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.

'Shocked and deeply concerned'

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.”

An AFP correspondent heard heavy fighting and a series of loud explosions in the hours preceding the 1 a.m. downing in Lugansk, a city of 400,000 lying just 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of the Russian border.

The industrial center 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 neighboring 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.

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A pro-Russian fighter guards the site of remnants of a downed Ukrainian army aircraft Il-76 at the airport near Luhansk, Ukraine, Saturday, June 14. (AP)

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