A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 — Flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur — with 295 people aboard crashed in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border on Thursday. Ukrainian officials said it was shot down by pro-Russia militants, possibly with a heavy, Soviet-era ground-to-air missile.
Malaysia Airlines, still reeling from the mysterious loss of another Boeing 777 flight in March, said it had lost contact with the flight over Ukraine. “The last known position was over Ukrainian air space,” it tweeted. It said Ukrainian aviation authorities said they had lost contact with the flight at 2:15 pm GMT. It said the plane, carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members, had left Amsterdam at 12:15 pm and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur at 6:10 am Friday.
Full Coverage: Malaysian jet shot down over Ukraine
The plane came down near the city of Donetsk, a stronghold of pro-Russia rebels, Ukrainian Interior Ministry official Anton Geraschenko said on Facebook, adding that it was “shot down with an anti-aircraft system by terrorists” — the term the Kiev government uses for pro-Russia militants. He said the plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet, adding that a BUK launcher can fire missiles up to an altitude of 72,000 feet.
Geraschenko wrote that earlier on Thursday, people in eastern Ukraine had reported seeing a BUK system being moved from the town of Torez towards the town of Snezhnoye.
The Donetsk region government confirmed that a plane had crashed near a village called Grabovo, about 40 kms from the Russian border. Reporters arriving at the scene near Grabovo said they saw dozens of bodies, mostly intact, in a wheat field with purple flowers, with pieces of the plane scattered across a road lined with fire engines and emergency vehicles. One passenger in a black sweater lay on her back, with blood streaming down her face and her left arm raised.
An emergency services rescue worker said at least 100 bodies had been found so far, and the debris from the wreckage was spread across an area up to about 15 km in diameter.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted that he was “shocked by reports that an MH plane crashed. We are launching an immediate investigation.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described it as an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation.
But Andrei Purgin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the insurgent group in eastern Ukraine, denied in a telephone interview that the rebels had anything to do with the loss of the passenger jet. He said the rebels had shot down Ukrainian planes before but their anti-aircraft weapons could reach only up to over 13,000 feet, far below the cruising level of passenger jets.
“We don’t have the technical ability to hit a plane at that height,” he said. He said the plane apparently came down in an area of Ukrainian military operations and that it was possible that the Ukrainian forces had shot it down. “Remember the Black Sea plane disaster,” he said, referring to the 2001 crash of a passenger jet bound for Israel that the Ukrainians shot down by accident during a military training exercise.
Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned BUK missile launchers, but said even if they did, they did not have fighters capable of operating it. A launcher similar to the BUK missile system was seen by AP journalists earlier on Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
Poroshenko said his country’s armed forces didn’t shoot at any airborne targets. “We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the armed forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets… We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible,’’ he said.
Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the US, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to Thursday’s crash. Within hours, several airlines, including Lufthansa and KLM, released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said on Twitter that there’s no confirmation that Thursday’s plane was shot down. He said he has instructed the country’s military to check.
US President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy’’ and talked about it on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine has accused Russia of taking an active role in the four-month-old conflict. Earlier on Thursday, it accused Russia of shooting down a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet — an accusation that Moscow denied.
Eastern Ukraine has been roiled for months by a violent pro-Russia separatist uprising in which a number of military aircraft have been downed. But this would be the first commercial airline disaster to result from the hostilities.