A Malaysian Airlines passenger jet was shot down Thursday over eastern Ukraine, a day after a Ukrainian military jet was downed in the same area.
The Boeing 777 was at cruising altitude of 10,000 metres (32,808 feet) over an international air corridor when it was shot down, according to Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Minister. All 295 people on board – 280 passengers and 15 crew members – were killed. There reportedly were 23 Americans and four French nationals on board flight MH17.
Reporters on the scene described burning wreckage and hundreds of bodies strewn about the crash site, located in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatist rebels. The region has been the scene of severe fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatists in recent days.
Flight MH17 was taking a well-flown route between Europe and Asia, a pilot told BBC transport correspondent Richard Westcott. He said that any troops should have known the path was full of civilian aircraft.
Aviation expert Julian Bray said he was surprised any airlines were still flying over eastern Ukraine.
“Normally what they do [is] they fly around it – they declare it black and say ‘no we’re not going in there’ or they send their aircraft a little higher,” he told the BBC.
The International Civilian Aviation Organization (ICAO) declared MH17’s route as safe.
Wreckage was scattered over a wide range, approximately 15km, suggesting the plane had broken up in mid-air before crashing.
Gerashenko said the plane was “hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher.” The New York Daily News reports the Buk missile launcher was developed in the late 1970s by the Soviet Union to shoot down missiles, planes, and smart bombs up to 33,000 feet. The Associated Press reported seeing the weapon – which resembles a launcher mounted on top of a tank – in the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday.
A tweet from the official Twitter page of the Donetsk People’s Republic showing a Buk launcher it had gotten hold of only days ago has suddenly been deleted.
However, BBC News defense expert Jonathan Beale reports that shooting down a plane at such a height would have required a long-range surface-to-air missile – possibly guided by radar. That suggests it is unlikely it could have been downed by a portable air defence missile. Beale also suggested the plane could have been shot down by an air-to-air missile launched from a fighter jet.
Aviation analyst Chris Yates also told the BBC that a long range system one as opposed to a portable system would have had to been used to shoot down the plane.
The BBC‘s Oleg Boldyrev in Moscow says the rebels do not have out-dated equipment. What they have equals or maybe surpasses the Ukrainian government’s capabilities. He says some reports say the rebels even have fighter planes reportedly flown from Crimea and that possibility should not be excluded.
Ukrainian miner Andrey Tarasenko claims he and a friend saw the plane being shot down.
“You know how you see a trail from a plane? It was the same, but it was a missile launched from the ground,” Tarasenko told NBC News. He said he never saw the plane in the sky. His friend videotaped the aftermath and put the video up on YouTube.
Donetsk People’s Republic spokesman Sergey Kavatardze denied his group shot down the plane, blaming the Ukrainian government for the downing.
“We simply have no air defence systems of this kind,” he said. “The portable air defence systems which we have, they work at a maximum of three to four thousand metres. Therefore, it is possible to say virtually before the start of the investigation that the Ukrainian armed forces destroyed this.”
Eastern Ukraine separatist leader Alexander Borodai and Novorossiya, another separatist faction, also blamed the Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement that “no surface-to-air systems are involved in the military operation against separatists in the east, and the plane [MH17] was out of reach of other Ukrainian air defence forces.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denied his side was involved in the plane being shot down, blaming a “terrorist act” on what he called an “airline catastrophe.” Poroshenko has launched an investigation.
A number of Ukrainian military supply planes have been shot down over the last few weeks. One was shot down over Luhanks airport on June 15; rebels claimed to have shot down two Ukrainian military jets on Wednesday, followed by Kiev blaming Russia’s air force of shooting down one of its jets while it was on a mission over Ukrainian territory.
A Ukrainian official also told CNN‘s Jim Sciutto Thursday that separatists claimed to have brought down another plane around the same time MH17 went missing.
That leader, Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, wrote on VKontakte, Russia’s largest social media site, the following, according to Before It’s News: “In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26. It is lying somewhere in the Progress Mine. We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. The bird fell on a waste heap. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured.”
Included in the post, made around 17:50 Moscow time (12:50 GMT / 08:50 ET), were two videos that showed a rising plume of black smoke in the distance. This was shortly before reports of MH17 having crashed. The post has now been taken down.
Video surface on Wednesday of missiles being shot from Russia into Ukrainian territory.
Virgin Airlines, Delta Airlines, Lufthansa, Russian airliner Transaero, Turkish airlines, Italy’s Alitalia, and Air France all re-routed flights away from Ukraine out of safety concerns. Eurocontrol, which controls air traffic across Europe, later closed Ukrainian airspace to all commercial flights.
US President Barack Obama has spoken via telephone to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the airplane crash, Reuters reports. The call had already been pre-planned on the situation in Ukraine, it adds. AFP quotes the Kremlin as saying that President Putin “informed [President Obama] about an air-traffic controllers’ report that came just before their phone conversation that a Malaysian plane crashed in Ukraine.”
In a speech later on Thursday, President Obama offered “any assistance we can” in helping to figure out what happened and why.
Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, announced late Thursday night he is prepared to agree to a truce for several days to help facilitate the investigation into the crash.