Grabovo (Ukraine), July 17: A Malaysian airliner crashed and burned over eastern Ukraine today, killing all 295 aboard, sharply raising the stakes in a conflict between the western-backed government and pro-Moscow rebels who accused each other of shooting it down.
Kiev accused “terrorists” — militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia — of hitting the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with a heavy, Soviet-era ground-to-air missile as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Rebel leaders hurled a counter charge. But half an hour before the last reported contact with the airliner, their Russian commander had claimed the shooting of an Antonov An-26, a Ukrainian military transport plane, in the same area — their third such kill this week.
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 Grabovo, 40km from the Russian border near the rebel-held regional capital of Donetsk.
The aircraft would be the first passenger plane to fall victim to the hostilities in Ukraine that have claimed hundreds of lives since pro-western protests toppled the Moscow-backed President in Kiev in February and Russia annexed Crimea a month later.
The scale of the disaster affecting scores of foreigners —reports said the dead include 23 Americans and four French nationals — could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis.
As word came in of the crash, Russian and US leaders Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama were discussing the West’s latest economic sanctions on Moscow, imposed yesterday to get Putin to do more to curb the revolt against Kiev’s western-backed government.
They noted the early reports of the crash during their phone call, the White House said, adding that Obama, who called it a “terrible tragedy”, had warned of further sanctions if Moscow did not change course in Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines said air traffic controllers lost contact with flight MH-17 around 7.45pm Indian time as it flew towards the Russian border, carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members. Flight tracking data indicated it was at its cruising altitude of 33,000ft.
“I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang and shots,” a man in Grabovo said. “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 the debris was spread over 15km. Late tonight, pro-Russian separatists claimed to have found the “black box” flight recorder.
“MH-17 is not an incident or catastrophe, it is a terrorist attack,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted.
The loss of the MH-17 is the second disaster for Malaysia Airlines this year, following the mysterious disappearance of flight MH-370 in March with 239 people aboard on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
On Facebook, Ukrainian interior ministry official Anton Gerashchenko claimed that “terrorists using a Buk anti-aircraft system kindly given to them by Putin” had shot the airliner down.
He added: “There is no limit to the cynicism of Putin and his terrorists! Europe, USA, Canada, the civilised world, open your eyes! Help us in any way you can! This is a war of good against evil!”
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin, however, said the rebels’ anti-aircraft weapons could only reach to around 4,000 metres — far below the level of passenger jets. “We don’t have the technical ability to hit a plane at that height,” he said.
Purgin said he was not aware whether the rebels owned Buk missile launchers but, even if they did, they had no fighters capable of operating them.
But American news agency Associated Press said its journalists had seen a similar launcher near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snezhnoye earlier today.
This appeared to tie in with Gerashchenko’s post about people in eastern Ukraine reporting seeing a Buk system moved from the town of Torez towards the town of Snezhnoye.
The Buk missile system can fire missiles up to an altitude of 72,000ft.
Purgin said the MH-17 came down in an area of Ukrainian military operations and it was not out of the question that the Ukrainians themselves shot it down.
“Remember the Black Sea plane disaster,” Purgin said, referring to the 2001 shooting of an Israel-bound Russian airliner that the Ukrainians shot down by accident during a military training exercise, killing all 78 on board.
A “shocked” Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, said he was launching “an immediate investigation”.
Lufthansa of Germany and Turkish Airlines said their planes would steer clear of east Ukrainian air space. An Air India official said none of the airline’s planes flies over Ukraine.
American and European aviation safety authorities had warned pilots in April about the potential risks of flying in or near Ukrainian airspace.
The US Federal Aviation Administration’s April 23 “special notice” remains in effect until April 23 next year..
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 on Wednesday by an air-to-air missile Ė 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.
Passenger planes that have been shot down include a South Korean airliner that a Soviet jet fighter targeted in 1983 after it had strayed into Russian air space, killing all 269 aboard.
In 1988, the US warship Vincennes downed an Iranian airliner over the Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew, in what Washington said was an accident after crew mistook the plane for a fighter.
Tehran called it a deliberate attack.