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Malaysia defends downed plane's path; AI jet was minutes away

Kuala Lumpur, Jul 18 (PTI): Malaysia on Friday defended the flight path taken by Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down by a missile over Ukraine on Thursday killing all 298 people on board, pointing out that it was an approved route and other airlines were also using it.

Local media reports had quoted data from Flightradar24.com that a Singapore Airlines and an Air India plane were 15 miles away at the time of the incident.

Transport minister Liong Tiong Lai told a press conference here that the path was approved by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and by the countries whose airspace the route passed through, and that all systems of the aircraft were functioning normally.

He said the International Air Transportation Association had also stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was unrestricted.

“Fifteen out of 16 airlines in the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines fly this route over Ukraine. European airlines also use the same route, and traverse the same airspace. In the hours before the incident, a number of other passenger aircraft from different carriers used the same route,” he said.

The minister stressed that there were no last minute instructions given to the pilots of MH17 to change the route of the flight.

He said Malaysia Airlines flights would not take the route anymore as it had been closed after Thursday’s incident.

Liong said that no distress signal had been received from the pilots before the plane crashed.

He said if it was confirmed that the plane was shot down “it would contravene international law, and be an outrage against human decency,” adding that those responsible should be swiftly brought to justice.

The Ukrainian government will institute an investigation into the circumstances of the accident, and be responsible for the conduct of the investigation, the minister said.

Earlier on Friday, Malaysia Airlines released a list of those on board the flight and their nationalities.

The list included 41 passengers whose nationality could not be verified at the time, as they were in transit from previous flights, and had not entered passport control in Amsterdam.

The airline said 21 of these passengers' nationalities have now been verified, and 20 still remain.

The latest breakdown of known nationalities of those on board shows a majority of the passengers were Dutch.

A total of 173 passengers were from the Netherlands.

Malaysia Airlines released a statement on the aircraft's service record, confirming that all the aircraft's systems were functioning normally.

The Aircraft Communications Addressing & Reporting System (ACARS) and the aircraft's transponders were working and transmitting as normal.

Ukraine authorities will take up the issue when the black box is found, the minister said.

His remarks follow a Russian news agency report that pro-Russia separatists claimed to have recovered the black box of MH17 and had announced that they are planning to have it moved to Moscow for examination.

According to Russian news agency Interfax, the news came from officials from the breakaway Donestsk Republic.

MH17 disappeared from radar screens in eastern Ukraine at around 1415 GMT, hours after the Boeing 777, bound for Kuala Lumpur, had taken off from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport on Thursday.

The Boeing 777, with 283 passengers and 15 crew members onboard, is believed to have been accidentally shot down 50 km from the Ukraine-Russia border.

The Malaysian Star newspaper quoting Russian news portal RT.com reported that 121 bodies had been recovered from the crash site.

Quoting the Ukraine Emergency Ministry, the portal reported that about 95 rescuers and 18 vehicles were involved in the recovery process in the Donetsk Region of the country.

Meanwhile, local media reported that one of the victims of the plane crash was Malaysian premier Najib Razak's step-grandmother Siti Amirah.

According to a family spokeswoman, Siti was travelling alone on her way back to Jogjakarta, Indonesia from Amsterdam and intended to transit at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

She was aged 83 and was once married to Mohammad Noah Omar as his second wife. Noah, who passed away in 1990, was Najib's grandfather.