Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane overnight carrying troops and supplies in the eastern city of Luhansk, the defence ministry said on Saturday.
“On the night of June 13-14, the terrorists…fired from an anti-aircraft weapon and a large calibre machine gun, shooting down military transport aircraft…IL-76 as it was about to land,” the ministry said in a statement, offering its condolences to the victims’ families.
Forty-nine military personnel were killed in the incident, according to military spokesman Vladislav Seleznov.
Luhansk lies near Ukraine’s border with Russia, an area where separatists have seized government buildings and declared independence after holding disputed referendums.
The toll would be the biggest suffered by government forces in a single incident since Ukraine’s government launched a military operation against pro-Russian separatists in the east.
An estimated 270 people have been killed in the violence over the past two months.
This came a day after U.S. State Department confirmed that Russia had sent tanks and other heavy weapons to separatists in Ukraine.
A convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 “Grad” multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne, the State Department officials said.
Reports and images of the weapons’ presence circulated on Thursday, but there were conflicting claims about where they had come from.
“This is unacceptable,” said Marie Harf, the deputy State Department spokeswoman. “A failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.”
A Western official said that intelligence about the movement of the tanks and other weapons into Ukraine was shared on Friday with NATO allies.
Secretary of State John Kerry complained earlier this week about the flow of Russian arms to separatists in Ukraine in a phone call to Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
The T-64 is an obsolescent tank no longer in active use by Russian forces, but still kept in storage in southwest Russia.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS, New York Times)