File photo: A pro-Russian fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine. Picture: Evgeniy Maloletka

Kiev - Forty-nine Ukrainian soldiers are believed to have been killed after separatists shot down an Ilyushin-76 aircraft near Luhansk, the Interfax news agency reported on Saturday, citing a Defence Ministry spokesman.

The Ukraine Air Force's transport plane was approaching an airport in Luhansk in the east with “military personnel, machinery, equipment and supplies” when it came under “anti-aircraft and heavy machine gun fire,” the military said online.

Defence Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said information had been provided to search and rescue teams and that according to provisional figures they believed that 49 were dead.

The area has seen weeks of clashes between security forces of the Kiev central government and the militias of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic.

Representatives of the Luhansk People's Republic would neither confirm nor deny the downing of the plane, according to the Itar Tass news agency. - Sapa-dpa