DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine – Ukraine’s top defense official said Monday that Russia may have shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane, an action that would represent a dramatic new step in the months-long conflict that has engulfed eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian separatists immediately asserted responsibility for the downing of the An-26 plane over Luhansk, but Ukrainian Defense Minister Valery Heletey said the aircraft had been flying too high for their shoulder-mounted rockets to reach it.
The plane was downed by another, more powerful missile weapon that probably was used from the territory of the Russian Federation, Heletey told President Petro Poroshenko, according to a statement on the president’s Web site. Russia did not comment on the accusation.
Ukrainian authorities said that the plane was flying at about 21,000 feet and that they believed it had been hit either by a powerful Pantsir surface-to-air missile or by an air-to-air homing missile fired by a fighter jet from Russia’s Millerovo air base, near the Ukrainian border, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters in Kiev.
The crew managed to parachute out before the plane crashed, and all survived, Lysenko said. Four crew members were taken captive by rebels, Russia’s Interfax news service reported separatist leaders as saying.
Ukraine’s claim came as a NATO official said Russia has massed 10,000 to 12,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, after their number dropped to less than 1,000 in mid-June. Since that time, the Russians have been building up their forces again, the official said, speaking under alliance ground rules of anonymity.
Fears of an open Russian intervention in Ukraine have spiked in recent days, particularly after Moscow on Sunday accused Ukraine’s military of killing a Russian citizen on Russian soil after a shell apparently fired from Ukraine landed over the border. Ukrainian officials denied shooting into Russian territory, but Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned of irreversible consequences, and a senior legislator called for precision strikes against Ukrainian military installations.