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Separatists down Ukraine military plane; 49 dead

Ukraine's new Western-backed leader vowed to strike back at pro-Russian rebels who killed 49 troops by downing a military plane in the deadliest attack against federal forces in the two-month insurgency.

LUGANSK, Ukraine: Ukraine's new Western-backed leader vowed on Saturday to strike back at pro-Russian rebels who killed 49 troops by downing a military plane in the deadliest attack against federal forces in the two-month insurgency.

The attack came hours before top Moscow and Kiev officials were to meet in the Ukrainian capital for 11th-hour gas negotiations aimed at averting an imminent cut in Russian supplies that would also affect large swathes of Europe.

The United States accused Russia of helping the insurgency by sending tanks and rocket launchers to the pro-Moscow rebels - a charge the Kremlin denied.

A Lugansk rebel commander who showed pieces of the Il-76 transporter's charred debris in a wheat field a dozen kilometres (around eight miles) outside the airport said five militants shot down the plane using machine guns.

The tall and bulky commander, referred to by his unit as Mudzhakhed (Sacred Fighter), brandished a Kalashnikov rifle while listing the mostly Russian-speaking region's grievances against the new more nationalist leaders in Kiev.

"They brought machine guns and ammunition," Mudzhakhed said. "We do not like people telling us what to do."

Mudzhakhed said that the plane tried to dump fuel after the rebels hit its engines. The heavy transporter crashed on its second landing approach.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signalled an imminent intensification of the offensive he had pledged to end just days after his May 25 election. He vowed to deal the rebels "an adequate response".

And an irate mob of about 300 in Kiev overturned several cars before tearing down the Russian embassy flag while a dozen city police officers looked on without interfering.

Federal forces suffered still more casualties on Saturday when three border guards were killed and four wounded after being ambushed in the eastern port of Mariupol - captured with great fanfare by federal forces the day before.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel and French President Francois Hollande expressed "extreme concern" over Ukraine's spiralling violence in a joint phone conversation with Russia's Vladimir Putin in which they said it was important to rapidly reach a ceasefire.

Just before the transport plane was shot down, an AFP correspondent in Lugansk heard heavy fighting and a series of loud explosions.

"They were flying here to kill people. Those bastards are bombing us," a pro-Russian man named Roman said outside the headquarters of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People's Republic.

"They knew where they were flying and they were warned. We are the people of Lugansk. Ukraine does not exist anymore."

The industrial hub of 400,000 inhabitants has been under effective rebel control since the eastern uprising began in early April.

Nearby border guard units have come under brazen attacks by fighters from strife-torn Russian regions such as Dagestan and Chechnya.

The Ukrainian forces have so far managed to hold on to the airport and use it to rotate equipment and troops serving in the campaign.

But they have had to repel an increasingly frequent series of raids by gunmen, similar to those that led to the brief rebel capture of the main international airport in the southeastern city of Donetsk at the end of May.

The eastern insurgency has so far claimed at least 320 lives of civilians and fighters on both sides.

Poroshenko's troubles have been compounded by the threat of Ukraine being cut off from economically vital Russian gas shipments as early as Monday because of a bitter price dispute.

Ukraine receives half its gas supplies from Russia and transports 15 percent of the fuel consumed in Europe. Moscow had nearly doubled the price it charges Kiev in the wake of the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.

The head of Ukraine's state energy firm said Kiev was ready to make a $1.95 billion (1.45 billion euro) payment demanded by Moscow by Monday morning if Russia agreed to cut its ongoing price to $326 from $485.50 for 1,000 cubic metres of gas.

Russia had called a price of $385 per 1,000 cubic metres its final offer.

The heads of the two countries' state-held gas companies and respective energy ministers will attend what may be a decisive meeting in Kiev.

The United States on Friday accused Russia of secretly sending tanks and rocket launchers to the rebels in a bid to further destabilise its western neighbour.

US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf raised the prospect of further Western economic sanctions if Russia failed "to demonstrate its commitment to peace".

And NATO released photographs on Saturday of what it said were suspected Russian tanks in the restive region that "do not bear markings or camouflage paint like those used by the Ukrainian military".

It said the images raised "significant questions concerning Russia's role in facilitating instability in eastern Ukraine".

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