Today, both sides suffered more losses in Ukraine’s eastern conflict, as rebels shot down an aircraft transporting soldiers into Luhansk, and Ukrainian forces reciprocated with airstrike on a rebel-held police station in Gorlovka.
According to a statement released by the Ukraine’s ministry of Defense the rebels “cynically” and “treacherously” shot down an IL-76 plane approaching Luhansk airport using anti-aircraft technology and heavy machine gun fire overnight.
The airfield, which has been closed for around one month, is an isolated island of Ukrainian control amidst a sea of rebel held territory.
The plane was carrying troops and equipment for a personnel change over the Defense Ministry said.
Video footage purported to show the aftermath of the incident shows a burning inferno at the site where the plane reportedly crashed.
According to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's office, all 40 military personnel and the nine crew members on board were killed.
The attack marks the biggest losses to Ukrainian forces from a single event since the conflict in Ukraine’s east began.
In response to the incident Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, inaugurated one week ago, said that “a terrorist attack of this magnitude, must be punished."
Poroshenko, who declared June 15 would be a national day of mourning for those killed, also said that the country “needs peace,” but promised an “adequate response."
Luhansk is one of the two oblasts in eastern Ukraine under the control of pro-Russia rebel forces. Economically depressed and starved of investment the region, which declared independence from Ukraine following a rebel-held referendum on May 11, has proved a fertile breeding ground for anti-Kiev sentiment.
The eastern most rebel-republic has proved a vicious thorn in the side of Kiev anti-terror operation as the large areas of porous border it shares with Russia have purportedly been used to bring fighters and weapons into Ukraine to reinforce the rebels.
The attack on the airplane comes just one day after the Ukrainian government claimed a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border into Ukraine near to the town Snizhne.
The Ukrainian Army reported Friday that it had destroyed two of the tanks and several other military vehicles in the convoy.
The origin of the tanks, weapons and other military vehicles, however, has not been independently verified, with reports also suggesting they could have also come from Crimea or have been seized by the rebels in clashes with the Ukrainian army.
But, in a statement, the US has sided with Kiev on the issue.
“We are confident that these tanks came from Russia,” the US State Department said in a statement on Friday afternoon.
“We also have information that Russia has accumulated multiple rocket launchers at this same deployment site in southwest Russia, and these rocket launchers also recently departed,” the State Department added. “Internet video has shown what we believe to be these same rocket launchers traveling through Luhansk.”
The comments are a clear warning to Moscow.
Many analysts believe Russia is trying to dodge a fresh round of economic sanctions from the West by taking a hands-off approach to the conflict; namely allowing a free-flow of arms and men across their border whilst remaining apparently open to negotiations at a diplomatic level.
Last week, at a G7 meeting, US President Barack Obama, warned that Western powers are set to impose “additional costs” on Russia if it continues its provocations in Ukraine.
Several rounds of sanctions targeting businessmen and officials in the rebel-republics and Russia have already been imposed by various western powers including: the EU, US, Switzerland and Canada.
Fighting Flares Up in the East
On-the-ground fighting also flared in other areas of the country’s eastern regions today.
Just hours after the hit to its aircraft transporting military personnel in Luhansk, Ukraine seemingly retaliated with an airstrike on Gorlovka police station that has been held, and used as a headquarters by the rebels, since it was seized on April 14.
At around 4AM a single strike reportedly hit the building causing the third and fifth floors to catch ablaze.
A rebel source in the city told VICE News that two were killed in the attack, and eight were injured.
A similar attack was carried out on the rebel-held administrative building in Luhansk on June 2. The Ukrainian authorities have denied that they carried out the airstrike, which killed eight including civilians, despite evidence to the contrary.
Meanwhile in Mariupol, a rebel ambush on a border guard position at around 10AM this morning killed three and wounded four, a statement from the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said.
The strategically important southeastern port city, which is famed for its steel exports and lies on one of the main routes to Russia, has changed hands multiple times over the last few weeks.
But, only Friday the Ukrainian government said that it had regained full control over city after Kiev-backed forces fought gun battles in the city center in a bid to clear out the remaining rebels from the area.
It is unclear whether the plans announced by Poroshenko to move the Donetsk administrative center to Mariupol are yet underway.
The president, in office for just one week, is coming under increasing pressure to resolve the conflict the country’s east, which has an official death toll of at least 270 according to Ukraine's Health Ministry, and has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.