A Malaysia Airlines jetliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed Thursday in eastern Ukraine, and Ukrainian government officials said pro-Russian insurgents had shot down the plane.
A senior U.S. official said a surface-to-air missile downed the Boeing 777-200 carrying 295 people, but analysts don't yet know where the missile was launched from nor who fired it
Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that Flight MH17 with 280 passengers and 15 crew members lost contact with Ukrainian air-traffic control at around 2:15 p.m. UTC. Most of the passengers were Dutch citizens. There was no indication of survivors.
The jet went down in a rural part of the Donetsk region, not far from the Russian border, where the Russian-backed fighters have battled Ukraine governement troops in what increasingly resembles all-out war.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry, citing military officials, said the airliner was flying at around 33,000 feet when it was hit by a surface-to-air missile known as a Buk.
The Buk is a sophisticated, medium-range, Soviet-era surface-to-air system that can fire missiles up to 72,000 feet in altitude.
"The plane was shot down, because the Russian air defense systems was (sic) affording protection to Russian mercenaries and terrorists in this area," ministry spokeswoman Natalya Melnychuk said in a statement on Facebook.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he didn't rule out that the airliner was shot down.
"We do not rule out that this plane has been shot down but emphasize that the Armed Forces of Ukraine were not engaged in any activity involving hitting targets in the air," he said in a statement posted on the presidential website.
In a statement posted later on Twitter, Poroshenko wrote: "This is not an incident, not an accident, but an act of terror."
◆ Washington in Touch with Ukraine
Vice President Joe Biden said during a speech in Detroit that the jet was shot down, "not an accident, blown out of the sky."
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. officials have been in touch with Ukrainian officials, but declined to elaborate. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, called the crash a terrible tragedy.
"Right now we're working to determine whether there were any American citizens on board. That is our first priority and I've directed my national security team to stay in close contact with the Ukrainian government. The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why," Obama said during a speech in Delaware. And as a country our thoughts and prayers are with all the families and passengers wherever they call home."
Before leaving on his trip, Obama spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A day earlier, the United States announced new economic sanctions targeting major Russian oil and financiali companies, the latest in a series of moves aimed at punishing Russia for its role in Ukraine.
According to the White House, the call had been requested by Moscow. As the two spoke, the first reports of the crash emerged, and Putin brought them up with Obama at the end of the conversation, Earnest said.
In televised comments in Moscow late Thursday, Putin said the Ukrainian government bore responsibility.
"This tragedy would not have happened, if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed," he said. "And without doubt the government of the territory on which
it happened bears responsibility for this frightening tragedy."
◆ Crash Location
News reports said the plane crashed near the eastern town of Snizhne, near the border with Russia, which has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. An airstrike there earlier this week killed 11 people. There was no claim of responsibility for that attack, though the rebels blamed Ukraine's air force.
On Thursday, around the time of the reported crash, separatists claimed they had downed an Antonov An-26 miltary transport plane near the town of Torez, which is less then six miles from Snizhne.
Social media postings on Twitter and the Russian site VKontakte that were attributed to Igor Strelkov, a Russian citizen who is a top insurgent leader, claimed that insurgents had shot down the An-26 at around the same time that the Malaysian airliner went down.
The VKontakte posting, which also included video showing smoke rising purportedly from the fields outside the village of Torez, was posted at 5:50 p.m. Moscow time, and read:
"In the vicinity of Torez, an An-26 was just shot down, falling somewhere in the vicinity of the Progress coal mine. We warned them about this: Don't fly over 'our skies.' And here is video confirmation of the latest 'bird strike.' The bird fell near the slagheap, the residential district was not struck. No civilians suffered. There's also information about a second downed plane, apparently a [Sukhoi]."
There was no immediate way to authenticate the video or the postings, although the claims appeared to match up with initial reports about when and where the Malaysian airliner went down.
The posting was later removed from the VKontakte page.
A later posting on the same VKontatke page and the Twitter feed linked to Strelkov quoted a top official with the unrecognized Donetsk People's Republic as confirming that a passenger jet had crashed neared Torez. The post, attributed to Alexander Borodai, denied rebel involvement, instead suggesting that Ukrainian forces were responsible.
Insurgent forces have shorter range anti-aircraft weapons, like those known as "Igla" and have used them to down other Ukainian military flights and possibly a helicopter. Borodai, however, said via Twitter that the rebels do not have weapons capable of hitting an airliner flying at 33,000 feet.
Russian media reports published June 29, however, quoted insurgent officials as having seized a Ukrainian anti-aircraft base where Buk missile systems were based.
The Associated Press reported seeing a Buk missile system in Snizhne earlier Thursday.
Ukraine's leading security agency, the SBU, released audio recordings in which a man it identified as a rebel commander is heard telling a Russian military officer that insurgents had downed the plane. The recordings, posted on YouTube and elsewhere, could not be independently verified.
In Washington, the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VOA that analysts were sifting through data to try and determine the missile's origin.
◆ Bodies Discovered
A Reuters reporter at the scene of the crash in Ukraine said dozens of bodies were scattered around the smoldering wreckage.
A rescue worker said at least 100 bodies had so far been found, and that debris was spread across an area up to about 9 miles in diameter.
Broken pieces of the wings were marked with blue and red paint -- the same colours as the emblem of the Malaysian airline.
"I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang and shots. Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke," one witness, who gave his name only as Vladimir, was quoted as saying.
A separatist rebel from the nearby village of Krasnyi Luch who gave his name only as Sergei said: "From my balcony I saw a plane begin to descend from a great height and then heard two explosions.
◆ Malaysia Launches Investigation
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the plane made no distress call before disappearing from radar. Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, meanwhile, said earlier there was no confirmation the flight had been shot down.
The incident comes four months after another Malaysia Airlines plane went missing while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying 239 passengers and crew. That plane has not been found.
◆ Plane Downed Monday
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has ebbed and flowed since erupting in late April and early May. After repeated battlefield failures, Ukrainian forces seized the initiative in recent weeks, re-taking strategic towns around the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Russian support for the insurgents has never been definitively confirmed, though most observers have concluded that the presence of Russian citizens, paramilitary units and heavy weaponry like tanks in eastern Ukraine indicate Moscow's backing.
Insurgents have downed several aircraft during their rebellion, most recently on Monday, when a Ukrainian military An-26 crashed in Luhansk region.
Separatists also claimed responsibility for hitting a Ukrainian Su-25 with a missile earlier Wednesday. The pilot of that plane managed to bring it down safely.
Also Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said a missile fired by a Russian warplane hit and brought down a Ukrainian Su-25 flying over eastern Ukraine, but that the pilot safely ejected.