Amid picturesque fields of sunflowers, just one mile from the Russian border in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, villagers gathered to take triumphant selfies earlier today while standing on top of the still-smoldering wreck of a Ukrainian plane. Photos taken, they then carried away souvenirs of twisted metal from the crash site.
According to Ukraine’s Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey, the An-26 aircraft, which was carrying food and water supplies to troops fighting in the country’s restive east, was shot down by “a powerful missile weapon that probably was used from the territory of the Russian Federation." Government officials claimed that the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles used by the pro-Russia rebels operating in the area would not have been able to hit the plane at the altitude it was flying.
Russia has called for “targeted strikes” on Ukrainian territory after an alleged shelling across its border killed a civilian, warning the attack could have “irreversible consequences." Moscow has not yet commented on the incident, but rebels on the ground told VICE News they were responsible for downing the plane. Since the beginning of the conflict in April, pro-Russia fighters claim to have downed at least four Ukrainian aircraft.
'That will teach you to invade our territory, you fucker!' said one man at the crash site, there with his two children.
According to locals, several people parachuted from the plane — it reportedly had a crew of eight — into surrounding fields before it crashed, but were later detained by rebels who arrived at the site shortly after the crash. Not everyone made it out safely, however.
“That will teach you to invade our territory, you fucker!” said one man at the crash site, there with his two children, as he pried a melted machine gun from the hands of an incinerated corpse stuck inside the metal wreck.
Anger at the government in the region has risen following Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko's approval of a plan to “liberate” the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of the country. The announcement marked the beginning of an aggressive new phase of the Kiev-backed anti-terror operation in which Ukrainian forces have begun using large amounts of heavy artillery.
At least a dozen civilians are thought to have died in strikes that have hit residential areas on the outskirts of the two cities in the past three days. Both sides have blamed each other for the deadly strikes.
The burned corpse of a Ukrainian soldier lies at the side of a road following an ambush near the Luhansk airport. Photo by Harriet Salem
On Sunday night, as the World Cup final finished, airstrikes and mortars reigned down on the outskirts of Luhansk while Kiev-backed forces launched an assault to free a passage to the airport where Ukrainian soldiers have been holding their position, encircled by pro-Russia rebels, for more than a month. Despite Kiev's claim that the area around the besieged airfield was back under Ukrainian military control, this morning swarms of pro-Russia fighters were still positioned inside the wooded areas surrounding the airport, smoking cigarettes and setting up anti-aircraft missiles.
On a nearby bridge, two rebels worked to remove a machine gun from the wreckage of a burnt-out Ukrainian armored personnel carrier and truck ambushed by rebels the night before. At the side of the highway, the burnt corpses of two Ukrainian soldiers lay sprawled at the side of the road.
Recent talks of negotiation now seem remote after both sides have accused the other of violating ceasefires. Reloading an AK-47 with ammunition salvaged from the wrecked truck, rebel gunman Alexy told VICE News that pro-Russia forces were ready to battle the “Kiev fascists” until the very end.
With fighting now reaching residential areas, thousands of people have fled Luhansk, a city of more than 425,000. Most of those who remain opt to stay inside after 2pm, when heavy shelling starts, turning the city into a ghost town.
On Monday afternoon, a two-mile stretch of road near a rebel headquarters on the cusp of the city center was almost deserted after Ukrainian artillery fire missed its target and ripped through the wall of the bus station administration building, causing panicked workers to flee. Cars sped through the area, failing to stop at red lights, after another barrage of artillery tore down electric cables and shrapnel damaged multiple apartments, offices, and shops. Sidewalks were littered with rubble and shattered glass.
“The city has been turned into Beirut," said 49-year-old Valera, who lives in Stanitsa Luhanskaya on the outskirts of the city. "We are terrified, we run inside every time an aircraft flies over. I jump every time the door slams. This is living hell — the feeling like we are just waiting to die."
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem