Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Two Ukrainian Military Jets Shot Down Over Southeastern Area
A Ukraine map.
By Carol Morello and Michael Birnbaum
July 23 at 9:48 AM  

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Two Ukrainian warplanes were shot down Wednesday over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in the same vicinity as a Malaysian airliner that was downed last week, Ukrainian officials said.

The planes, both Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft, were struck in the vicinity of Saur Mogila, a town just west of the Russian border, said Aleksey Dmitrashkovsky, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces. He said he had no information about the fate of the pilots.

But Bogdan Senik, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, said a witness reported seeing at least one parachute open.

Vladislav Seleznev, a Ukrainian military spokesman in the eastern combat zone, said the two jets were struck by antiaircraft missiles when they were flying in the same vicinity as Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down last week with 298 passengers and crew on board. He said a pilot was the only person in each of the two Soviet-designed military planes, which are used for close air support.

The downing of the warplanes came as bodies of MH17 victims were being flown out of Ukraine en route to the Netherlands.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials have charged that pro-Russian separatist rebels used a surface-to-air missile system supplied by Russia to shoot down the Malaysian plane. The rebels have denied involvement, but they claimed responsibility Wednesday for shooting down the Ukrainian jets, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported. The agency said rebels in Donetsk made the claim and were searching for the pilot who ejected.

The downing of the two strike aircraft came as the Ukrainian military said it had instituted a cease-fire within 25 miles of the site where MH17 went down last week.

“That is the site where Ukrainian armed forces have no activities,” said Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko before the downing of the military planes had been disclosed. “There is a prohibition by order.”

The site of Wednesday’s crashes appeared to be close to the edge of that perimeter, approximately 25 miles to the south.

At the main MH17 crash site early Wednesday afternoon — before the jets were shot down — black columns of smoke could be seen rising on the eastern horizon in the direction of Luhansk, a rebel-held city where there has been heavy fighting for weeks. Military aircraft buzzed overhead.

Explosions and gunfire could be heard throughout Tuesday night in the city of Donetsk, as the Ukrainian army continued a push against the rebels in their main stronghold.

The fighting has caused hair-trigger tension on the rebel side. Late Tuesday at the rebel headquarters in the main regional administration building in Donetsk, reports that the building was about to be bombed sent crowds of men in ragtag camouflage uniforms scurrying into a makeshift bomb shelter in the basement. The threat never materialized.

The Ukrainian military said early Wednesday that rebel forces were abandoning positions on the outskirts of Donetsk and regrouping in the city’s center. The claim could not be immediately verified.

According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, “pro-Russian terrorists began firing antiaircraft missile systems” at the planes in the area of Saur Mogila, near the town of Snizhne and about 10 miles from Torez, where the bodies of the Malaysia Airlines victims were initially taken.

“Two aircraft suffered damage,” the ministry said on its Web site. “The pilots ejected themselves.”

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military told Interfax that the military did not know the current status or location of the pilots.

Donetsk rebels told Interfax that the second plane flew farther north of the area where they were looking for one pilot who was seen ejecting.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said an Su-25 jet was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Luhansk last week, the day before MH17 was blasted out of the sky.

Luhansk rebels also told Interfax on Wednesday that they had shot down two other military aircraft on Tuesday.

“Four Su-25 attack aircraft and two Su-27 fighters spent the whole day yesterday flying over the Luhansk People’s Republic territory,” Interfax quoted a spokesman for the rebel organization as saying Wednesday. “As a result of using the republic’s air defense weapons, two hostile aircraft were destroyed.”

Even as the rebels claimed responsibility Wednesday for shooting down multiple Ukrainian military planes, a spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the Ukrainian army of preventing a cease-fire by carrying out strikes near the crash site.

“Kiev is not willing to listen to the voice reason and accept a cease-fire that was not once but twice offered by militia representatives,” spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site Wednesday afternoon. “Strikes from heavy weapons are being carried out, among other things, against populated areas and in the immediate vicinity of the crash site.”

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