A Malaysian airliner was “brought down” over eastern Ukraine yesterday, reportedly killing all 295 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" -- militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia -- of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with a heavy, Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia Airlines has lost contact of MH17 from Amsterdam. The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow.— Malaysia Airlines (@MAS) July 17, 2014
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.
There was no sign of survivors at the crash site near the rebel-held town of Shaktarsk in the Donetsk region, where an AFP reporter saw dozens of severely mutilated corpses strewn through the smouldering wreck of the decimated airliner.
Debris stretched for kilometres in the area near the Russian border, with the jet's tail marked with the Malaysian Airlines insignia laying in a corn field, and insurgent fighters and fire trucks nearby.
Russian news agency Itar-Tass cited a Ukrainian aviation official as saying no one had survived.
Malaysia Airlines announced on Twitter the loss of the Boeing 777 carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew, which had been expected in the Malaysian capital around 6:00am on Friday (2200 GMT Thursday).
The Independent wrote: nine Britons, 23 US citizens and 80 children were reportedly among those killed when the passenger jet crashed. AFP added that four French nationals and several Dutch were confirmed to have been on board the doomed flight.
The disaster comes just months after Malaysia's Flight MH370 disappeared on March 8 with 239 on board. The plane diverted from its Kuala Lumpur to Beijing flight path and its fate remains a mystery despite a massive aerial and underwater search.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Twitter he was "shocked by reports that an MH plane crashed" and announced an "immediate investigation."
Boeing said it was ready to assist the authorities in any way following the crash.
"All our thoughts and prayers go to the people on board the Malaysia Airlines plane missing in Ukrainian airspace, as well as their families and friends," it said in a statement.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama -- at loggerheads over a new wave of US sanctions over Ukraine -- had discussed the crash.
Obama called it a "terrible tragedy" and said US officials were trying to establish if any Americans were on board.
Airlines in France, Germany and Britain were told to avoid Ukraine's airspace following news of the tragedy.
SHOT BY MISTAKE?
There were conflicting claims of responsibility after the shocking new development in crisis-torn Ukraine where fighting between separatists and the Western-backed government has claimed over 600 lives.
The official spokesman for President Petro Poroshenko said he believed pro-Russian insurgents downed the jet.
"This incident is not a catastrophe. It is a terrorist act," Poroshenko's spokesman posted on Twitter.
The Ukrainian leader said earlier that "the Ukraine Armed Forces did not fire at any targets in the sky" and vowed "those behind this tragedy will be brought to justice".
Pro-Russian rebels in the self-proclaimed Lugansk People's Republic claimed in a statement the airline split in two after being shot down by a Ukrainian jet -- which was then shot down.
"Witnesses watching the flight of the Boeing 777 passenger plane saw it being attacked by a battle plane of the Ukrainian forces," it said.
But a social media site attributed to a rebel commander in Donetsk itself said the insurgents shot down an army transporter at the exact site of the Malaysia Airlines crash.
The comments by Igor Strelkov, top military commander of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" suggest the separatists shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane by mistake, believing it was a large Ukrainian army transport plane.
"We just downed an An-26 near Torez. It is down near the Progress mine," said the VK page attributed to Igor Strelkov, which is frequently quoted by Ukrainian media.
"We had warned (the Ukrainian armed forces) not to fly in 'our sky'," Strelkov says in the post. "And here is a video confirming that a 'bird fell'," said the post.
The website then provides a link identical to that published by Ukrainian media in reports about the Malaysia Airlines jet.
A rebel leader said Ukrainian forces shot the airliner down and that rebel forces did not have weaponry capable of hitting a plane flying 10 km (six miles) up. Ukrainian officials said their military was not involved in the incident.
There was no comment on that from the Ukrainian military.
Several Ukrainian planes and helicopters have been shot down in four months of fighting in the area. Ukraine had said an An-26 was shot down on Monday and one of its Sukhoi Su-25 fighters was downed on Wednesday by an air-to-air missile - Kiev's strongest accusation yet of direct Russian involvement, since the rebels do not appear to have access to aircraft.
Moscow has denied its forces are involved in any way.
The loss of MH-17 is the second disaster for Malaysia Airlines this year, following the mysterious loss of flight MH-370. It disappeared in March with 239 passengers and crew on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Reuters journalists saw burning and charred wreckage bearing the red and blue Malaysia insignia and dozens of bodies strewn in fields near the village of Hrabove, 40km (25 miles) from the Russian border near the rebel-held regional capital of Donetsk.
Malaysia Airlines said air traffic controllers lost contact with flight MH-17 at 1415 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 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 at told Reuters 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 15 km (9 miles). People were scouring the area for the black box flight recorders and separatists were later quoted as saying they had found one.
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 Putin have shot down a civilian airliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur."
The Buk, which means beech tree in Russia, is a 1970s vintage, truck-mounted, radar-guided missile system. Codenamed SA-11 Gadfly by Cold War Nato adversaries, it fires a 5.7-metre (19-foot), 55-kg (110-lb) missile for up to 28 km (18 miles).
"There is no limit to the cynicism of Putin and his terrorists!" Gerashchenko wrote on the social media site. "Europe, USA, Canada, the civilised world, open your eyes! Help us in any way you can! This is a war of good against evil!"
He also published a photograph he said showed a Buk launcher in the centre of the town of Torez yesterday. It was not possible to verify the image.