A Malaysian airliner has been brought down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard and sharply raising the stakes in a conflict between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels in which Russia and the West back opposing sides.
Ukraine accused “terrorists” – fighters aiming to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia – of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with a Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
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Leaders of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement, although around the same time their military commander said his forces had downed a much smaller Ukrainian transport plane. It would be their third such kill this week.
US Vice President Joe Biden said the downing of the plane was “not an accident” and that the passenger jet was “apparently … blown out of the sky.”
Burning and charred wreckage bearing the red and blue Malaysia insignia and dozens of bodies were strewn in fields near the village of Hrabove, 40km from the Russian border near the rebel-held regional capital of Donetsk.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow, said the plane fell in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
“The investigation will be very difficult given that it’s controlled by the rebels,” he said.
Despite the shooting down of several Ukrainian military aircraft in the area in recent months, including two this week, and renewed accusations from Kiev that Russian forces were taking a direct part, international air lanes had remained open.
Malaysia Airlines said that 154 Dutch citizens, 27 Australians, 43 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians, nine British, four German, four Belgian, three Filipinos and one Canadian were onboard the aircraft.
Wreckage and bodies
Malaysia Airlines said air traffic controllers lost contact with flight MH17 at 14:15 GMT as it flew over eastern Ukraine towards the Russian border, bound for Asia.
Flight tracking data indicated it was at its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet [10km] when it disappeared.
That would be beyond the range of smaller rockets used by the rebels to bring down helicopters and other low-flying Ukrainian military aircraft – but not of the SA-11 system which a Ukrainian official accused Russia of supplying to the rebels.
“I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang,” one local man told Reuters news agency at Hrabove, known in Russian as Grabovo.
“Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke.”
An emergency worker said at least 100 bodies had been found so far and that debris was spread over 15km.
People were scouring the area for the black box flight recorders and separatists were later quoted as saying they had found one.
“MH17 is not an incident or catastrophe, it is a terrorist attack,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted. He has stepped up his military campaign against the rebels since a ceasefire late last month failed to produce any negotiations.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry official Anton Gerashchenko said on Facebook: “Just now, over Torez, terrorists using a Buk anti-aircraft system kindly given to them by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin have shot down a civilian airliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.”
The Buk is a 1970s truck-mounted, radar-guided missile system, codenamed SA-11 Gadfly by Cold War NATO adversaries. It fires a 5.7-metre, 55-kg missiles for up to 28km.
A rebel leader said Ukrainian forces shot the airliner down and that rebel forces did not have weaponry capable of hitting a plane flying 10km up. Ukrainian officials said their military was not involved in the incident.
The military commander of the rebels, a Russian named Igor Strelkov, had written on his social media page at 13:37 GMT, half an hour before the last reported contact with MH17, that his forces had brought down an Antonov An-26, a turboprop transport plane of type used by Ukraine’s forces, in the same area.
Putin said Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash, but he did not address the question of who might have shot it down and did not accuse Ukraine of doing so.
“This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin statement issued early on Friday. “And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”
The loss of MH-17 is the second disaster for Malaysia Airlines this year, following the mysterious loss of flight MH370. It disappeared in March with 239 passengers and crew on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.