Pro-Russian rebels shoot down a military transport plane in eastern Ukraine, killing all 49 Ukrainian service personnel on board.
The toll is the highest suffered by government forces in a single incident since they launched a military operation to halt the rebellion in east Ukraine against the country’s pro-European leaders in Kiev and to try to prevent the country splitting up.
The Defence Ministry said in a statement the Il-76 plane was shot down in a “cynical” attack by rebels using an anti-aircraft weapon and a heavy-calibre machine gun.
It gave no death toll but Vladislav Seleznyov, spokesman for the military operation in east Ukraine, said by phone: “Forty-nine people were killed. All were Ukrainian military personnel.”
The Prosecutor General’s office said nine crew and 40 paratroopers had been killed and that the plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile at 1:10 a.m. (2210 GMT on Friday).
The Luhansk region is at the heart of the rebellion launched in April by separatists who want Russia to absorb the Russian-speaking east following the annexation of Crimea in March.
Government forces control Luhansk airport but local media said fighting was under way on Saturday in the city, control of which is important for patrolling the nearby border with Russia.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “I condemn the attack on a Ukrainian military transport plane over the city of Luhansk which has reportedly resulted in the loss of life of a large number of Ukrainian military personnel. I offer my sincere condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of those affected.
“This tragic incident underlines once again the urgency and importance of Russia taking further measures to prevent the escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine, including by stopping support and the supply of arms for separatist groups.
“The international community stands ready to impose further sanctions if Russia continues to provoke instability in Ukraine.”
The rebels also said the Ukrainian air force had fired on the industrial town of Horlivka, just north of region’s main city, Donetsk.
Rebels also shot down a military cargo plane last week, killing three people, and a general was among 14 killed when they hit an Mi-8 transport helicopter on May 29.
Scores of rebels, civilians and soldiers have been killed in the violence since April and more than 100 protesters, most of them seeking closer ties with the west, were killed in clashes with police in February which led to the fall of Ukraine’s Moscow-leaning president.
The new clashes this week, in which government forces reclaimed the southeastern port city of Mariupol on Friday, threaten tentative peace moves since the new president, Petro Poroshenko, was sworn in a week ago.
The breakdown of talks on a dispute over the price Kiev pays for Russian natural gas has also soured the atmosphere, with Moscow threatening to cut supplies to Kiev on Monday unless it starts paying its bills.