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Ukraine plane shot down as US cites Russia for rebel tanks

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-06-2014 Daryna Krasnolutska

Kiev: A Ukraine military transport aircraft carrying troops and equipment was shot down overnight as it approached Luhansk airport in the country’s eastern region, the defence ministry said on Saturday.

The plane was attacked by terrorists using an anti-aircraft system and heavy machine-gun fire, the defence ministry said in a statement on its website. Images posted on YouTube, which couldn’t be independently confirmed, show the night sky illuminated by a flash of light and fire.

“There were 49 people on the plane and our preliminary information is that all of them died,” Vladyslav Seleznyov, a military spokesman, said in a telephone interview. “The aircraft was shot down at about 1am local time a few kilometres from Luhansk airport,” he said.

The incident came after the US on Friday accused Russia of clandestinely sending old-model tanks as well as heavy weapons, including multiple-rocket launchers, to pro-Russia separatists. The US has information that at least three tanks crossed the border from Russia on 12 June, state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.

“The US is confident that the tanks came from Russia and aren’t ones captured from Ukrainian forces,” Harf said. “The military equipment came from a deployment site in southwest Russia,” she said.

Gas dispute

In addition to the worsening violence, Ukraine is also bracing for a halt in natural gas flows in a continuing dispute over payments. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Friday instructed authorities to prepare for a gas cut-off after a deadline set by Russia’s OAO Gazprom for Ukraine’s past payments for the fuel expires on 16 June.

The showdown over gas shipments heaps pressure on Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, who’s struggling to fulfil a pledge to halt the unrest after peace negotiations that include Russia so far failed to yield a cease-fire. The European Union, dependent on Russian gas piped through Ukraine for about 15% of its supplies, is trying to broker a deal to avoid interruptions seen during comparable disputes in 2006 and 2009.

Gazprom rescinded a price discount granted to Ukraine in December citing the country’s mounting debt, while Russia stripped its neighbour of a 2010 export-duty break that it exchanged for a lease on its Black Sea fleet’s port in Crimea, a region Putin annexed in March.

Worst scenario

The deadline for Ukraine to pay $1.95 billion for past supplies or be moved to prepayment is 16 June, according to Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller. Ukraine refused to pay after Russia raised the gas price by 81% in April.

“We are preparing for the worst-case scenario, when gas would not be supplied to Ukraine at all,” Andriy Kobolyev, chief executive officer of national energy company NAK Naftogaz Ukrainy, told reporters in Kiev. “But we still hope to find a compromise, as we have two days.”

Ukraine’s hryvnia, this year’s worst-performing currency against the dollar with a 30% plunge, strengthened 0.8% on Friday in Kiev, data compiled by Bloomberg showed. The rouble was 0.1% weaker.

Separately, clashes between Ukrainian authorities and pro- Russia separatists led to a border incident on Friday. A Ukrainian armoured personnel carrier crossed 100-150 metres into Russian territory in pursuit of insurgents, Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the head of Ukraine’s border service, said by phone. The incident prompted a protest from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

End provocation

“The incursion is a gross violation of the fundamental rules of international law,” the foreign ministry in Moscow said in a statement, demanding an end to such provocations.

The breach happened as Ukraine intensified an offensive against insurgents as it battled a rebel convoy of armoured vehicles, including the first reported separatist tanks. Nato warned that reports of an armoured column entering from Russia would mark a serious escalation in the months-long conflict.

“I continue to urge Russia to complete the withdrawal of its military forces on the border with Ukraine, to stop the flow of weapons and fighters across the border, and to exercise its influence among armed separatists to lay down their weapons and renounce violence,” Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in an emailed statement on Friday.

Heavy losses

Insurgents in the Black Sea port city of Mariupol in the Donetsk region suffered heavy losses and two government troops were injured as a planned operation against militants began at 4.50am on Friday, interior minister Arsen Avakov said on Facebook.

The operation was successful, with Ukrainian forces taking control of all the separatists’ strongholds, according to Avakov, who said 11 people were detained, two mines neutralized. A Donetsk-bound vehicle containing weapons was detained at a road block, he said.

Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton accused Russia of continuing to unsettle its neighbour and said Putin is seeking to control nations on his borders.

“He continues to de-stabilize eastern Ukraine,” Clinton said on France Inter radio on Friday. “The Russian leader’s behaviour is not acceptable,” she said. Bloomberg

Ewa Krukowska in Luxembourg, Daria Marchak and Kateryna Choursina in Kiev, James G. Neuger in Brussels, Mark Deen in Paris, Terry Atlas in Washington, Elena Mazneva in Moscow and Anna Shiryaevskaya in London contributed to this story.-

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