Passenger jet downed by missile near Ukraine-Russia border

Staff and wire reportsJuly 17, 2014 

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    THE PLANE

    A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER, which the carrier said was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members on Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After leaving Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. local time, the aircraft was due to land at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. local time the following day.

    THE ROUTE

    Though Ukrainian military aircraft have been shot down over eastern Ukraine by rebels, and the area has been the scene of fierce fighting, the route taken by the Malaysian jet appears to have been subject to no flight restrictions, the International Air Transport Association, an industry group, said. Eurocontrol, a European air safety organization, said the plane apparently was flying at approximately 10,000 meters (33,000 feet), which was authorized, although Ukrainian authorities had closed the airspace at lower altitudes.

    THE CRASH

    Malaysia Airlines said it was notified by Ukrainian authorities that they lost contact with the plane when it was 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Tamak waypoint, approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Ukraine-Russia border. The plane-tracking service FlightAware.com said the last reported position for MH17 was at 33,000 feet just west of Ukraine’s border with Russia. Ukrainian authorities reported the crash, and an Associated Press journalist found the site near a village held by pro-Russia fighters 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russia border. The reporter said the aircraft appeared to have broken up before impact. Burning wreckage and the belongings of passengers were strewn over a wide area.

    THE CAUSE

    An adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister said the plane was shot down with a missile, but gave no proof. In a counterclaim, a pro-Moscow separatist leader said he was certain that it was Ukrainian troops who downed the airliner, but also offered no explanation or proof. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denied his country’s armed forces fired on any aerial targets Thursday. Independent Western defense experts told the AP that both Ukrainian and Russian armed forces possess SA-17 missile launchers capable of reaching an altitude of 20,000 meters (66,000 feet), and that pro-Moscow insurgents may have gotten their hands on one to two surface-to-air missiles when Ukrainian forces retreated.

    A launcher similar to the SA-17 missile system, also known as Buk, was seen by AP journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.

    THE PASSENGERS

    Some unofficial reports listed that 23 U.S. citizens were onboard. At least 154 people on the flight were Dutch citizens, said Huib Gorter, Malaysian Airlines senior vice president in Europe. There were also 27 Australians on board, 23 Malaysians, including all 15 crew, and 11 Indonesians. Other nationalities so far identified were six passengers from the United Kingdom, four from Germany, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one Canadian.

    THE REACTION

    President Obama, who was informed by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone call of reports of a downed passenger jet, asked that his advisers keep him updated. Boeing offered any assistance that authorities might request. Eurocontrol said Ukrainian authorities informed it that all air space in Eastern Ukraine has now been closed, and that any flight plans filed using these routes will be rejected by Eurocontrol until further notice.

    Associated Press

— American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile took down a passenger jet in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, a U.S. official said, but the Obama administration was still scrambling to confirm who launched the strike and whether there were American citizens killed in the crash.

The official said the U.S. was still working to determine additional details about the crash, including who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukraine side of the border. But the official said it appeared unlikely the Ukrainian government forces shot down the plane because they don’t have those capabilities.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

Vice President Joe Biden said the incident was “not an accident” and described the plane as having been “blown out of the sky.” However, Biden cautioned that the U.S. was still seeking details about the cause of the crash and reports that there were American citizens aboard.

• According to multiple news sources, all 295 people onboard were dead, including 23 Americans who were listed on the flight manifest, but this had not yet been officially confirmed.

• In Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the jetliner did not make any distress call before it went down in Ukraine, and that the flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization. He told reporters that Ukrainian authorities believe the Boeing 777-200, which was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 280 passengers and 15 crew, was shot down Thursday. “At this stage, however, Malaysia is unable to verify the cause of this tragedy but we must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight,” Najib said. “If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice,” he said.

• In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukraine bears responsibility for the crash.

• Britain says the U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on Ukraine. Britain’s U.N. Mission said Thursday it requested the meeting and later tweeted that it is set for 10 a.m. Friday.

As plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village of Hrabove, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the wreckage site 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border.

The village is under the control of pro-Russia separatists and the area has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days. A Russian news report said pro-Russia rebels intend to call a three-day cease-fire to allow for an investigation into the crash and recovery efforts.

The Boeing 777-200ER plane, traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, appeared to have broken up before impact and the burning wreckage – which included body parts and the belongings of passengers – was scattered over a wide area.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash. He insisted that his forces did not shoot down the plane.

Ukraine’s security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that they said showed rebels were responsible. In the first call, the security services said, rebel commander Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence officer that rebel forces shot down a plane.

In the second, two rebel fighters – one of them at the scene of the crash – say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the crash site.

Neither recording could be independently verified.

President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and talked about it on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Britain has asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine. Britain’s U.N. Mission said Thursday the time of the meeting has not been set.

The RIA-Novosti agency on Thursday quoted rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying discussions were underway with Ukrainian authorities on calling a short truce for humanitarian reasons. He said international organizations would be allowed into the conflict-plagued region.

Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to Thursday’s crash. Within hours, several airlines, including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM, released statements Thursday saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.

Malaysia Airlines said Ukrainian aviation authorities told the company they had lost contact with Flight MH17 at 1415 GMT (10 a.m. EDT) about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Tamak waypoint, which is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russia-Ukraine border.

It said the plane was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members. It had left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. Friday.

Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet). Ukraine’s government didn’t say how it knew those details.

Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have SA-17 missile systems – also known as Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.

He said Russia had supplied separatist rebels with military hardware, but he had seen no evidence “of the transfer of that type of system from Russia.” The weapons that the rebels are known to have do not have the capacity to reach beyond 4,500 meters. (14,750 feet)

A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.

The Malaysia Airlines plane was delivered to the company on July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets. It has more than 43,000 hours of flight time and 6,950 takeoffs and landings.

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,” he said. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.”

The Kremlin said Putin “informed the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory” without giving further details about their call. The White House confirmed the call.

Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told The Associated Press that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down, but gave no explanation or proof for his statement.

Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, they had no fighters capable of operating it.

Around the time the plane crashed, Russian media quoted witnesses as saying they saw a plane being hit by what they thought was a rocket.

It was the second time that a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been attending a European Union summit in Brussels, headed back to the Netherlands to deal with fallout from the crash.

In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of those onboard the Malaysian airliner came to the international airport.

A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming visit the family in Kuala Lumpur for the first time in five years to celebrate Eid.

“She was coming back from Geneva to celebrate (Eid) with us for the first time in 30 years,” Akmar said in between sobs. “She called me just before she boarded the plane and said ‘see you soon,’ ” Akmar said.

There have been several disputes over planes being shot down over eastern Ukraine in recent days.

On Wednesday evening, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday, adding to what Kiev says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatist insurgents. Ukraine Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said the pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet hit by the air-to-air missile was forced to bail after his jet was shot down.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that Russia did not shoot down the Ukrainian fighter jet on Wednesday. “We didn’t do it,” Churkin said.

Pro-Russia rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, but added the pilot was unscathed and managed to land his plane safely

Moscow denies Western charges that is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest in its neighbor.

Earlier this week, Ukraine said a military transport plane was shot down Monday over eastern Ukraine by a missile fired from Russian territory.

Many airlines had continued to use the route despite warnings not to because of the fighting, said Norman Shanks, former head of group security at airports group BAA and professor of aviation security at Coventry University in England.

“It is a busy aviation route and there have been suggestions that a notice was given to aviators telling airlines to avoid that particular area,” Shanks said.

“But Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, have been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money.”

Flights that were airborne when the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed have been re-routed, transportation officials said.

Peter Leonard reported from Kiev. Contributing to this report were AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York; Jill Lawless and Matthew Knight in London; Laura Mills and Jim Heintz in Moscow; Darlene Superville in Washington; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Eileen Ng and Satish Cheney in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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