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Malaysia Airlines Passenger Jet Crashes in Ukraine

By Alexander Smith, Alastair Jamieson and Erin McClam
Thursday, July 17, 2014

Malaysia Airlines jet with 295 people on board crashed Thursday in the hostile eastern region of Ukraine, near the Russian border, and a Ukrainian government adviser said that it had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

Malaysia Airlines said that it lost contact with the plane, Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, about 30 miles from the Russian-Ukrainian border. Photos from the scene showed the blackened wreckage of the plane and bodies scattered in a field.

President Barack Obama said the U.S. government was working to determine whether Americans were on board.

More than four months ago, another Malaysia Airlines plane, Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared with 239 people on board — the greatest mystery in modern aviation. Multi-nation searches of swaths of land and ocean have turned up no sign of that aircraft.

Flight 17, a Boeing 777, had 280 passengers and 15 crew on board. There were no reports of survivors. The flight was almost three hours into an 11½-hour journey and was at about 33,000 feet at last report.

Royal Dutch Airlines said that it had sold some tickets for the flight under what is known as a code-share agreement. Families of those aboard began gathering at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

A report by the Russian news agency Interfax said that the crash Thursday was in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, among the most volatile regions in the world. Pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Ukrainian security forces there for months.

Andrey Tarasenko, a miner who was walking home from work with a friend, said that he saw a white trail go up from the ground, then heard an explosion two seconds later, then saw smoke risking from the ground 10 seconds after that. He said he was about 10 miles away.

“You know how you see a trail from a plane — it was the same, but it was a missile launched from the ground,” he said.

Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page that the plane was hit by a Russian surface-to-air missile known as a Buk. The type of missile can hit a target far higher than Flight 17 was flying.

The Associated Press reported earlier this week that it had seen a Buk system on the ground in a separatist-controlled area of eastern Ukraine.

The separatists denied responsibility. The separatists were quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax as saying that they had found the “black box” flight recorder. Other Russian reports said the rebels planned to call a three-day cease-fire to allow for an investigation.

In the chaotic early hours after the plane went down, the separatists and the Ukrainian government each said the other had shot it down.

A Ukrainian interior ministry official said that pro-Russian separatists had downed the plane, and a leader of the separatists, Aleksander Borodai, said that it was the Ukrainian air force.

Ukraine’s recently elected president, Petro Poroshenko, called it an act of terrorism. He said he had spoken to the Dutch prime minister and invited the Netherlands to join the investigation.

On national television, he said, “I would like to draw your attention that we do not call it an incident, not a disaster, but we call it a terrorist act.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said his government was investigating. The defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said that there was no confirmation that the plane had been shot down. He said on Twitter that the Malaysian military had been instructed to “get on it.”

Obama spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that Putin noted the reports of a downed passenger jet. Officials at the Pentagon scrambled to learn more and assess who might have had the capability to shoot down an airliner.

The conflict in Ukraine has raised tensions between Russia and the West to their highest since the end of the Cold War.

In February, protesters toppled the pro-Russian government in Kiev, and Russia answered by invading and later annexing the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. Since then, pro-Russian separatists have fought Ukrainian security forces in the east.

Ukrainian military planes have been shot down in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including earlier this week, but the crash Thursday was the first downing of a commercial airliner.

Evan Kohlmann, an NBC News terrorism analyst, said that shooting down a 777 at 33,000 feet would require “access to serious military equipment.”

“The chances this was done by a conventional terrorist group like al Qaeda or something like that is almost nonexistent,” he said.

The immediate impact on relations between Russia and the West was not clear. At the request of Ukraine, Britain asked for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, a U.N. diplomat told NBC News.

Data from the website FlightAware showed that Flight 17 took off from Amsterdam at about 6:30 a.m. ET. Its last recorded position was over Ukraine, west of the Russian border, at 9:19 a.m. ET.

Delta Air Lines, the German airline Lufthansa and two Russian airlines said that they would stop flying over the region. Lufthansa said that it would use a “wide detour,” and that four of its flights Thursday were affected by that change.

American Airlines said that it does not fly over Ukraine. American commercial airliners have been prohibited from flying over some parts of Ukraine since April, after Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to annex Crimea, but the crash site Thursday was outside that zone.

Boeing said it was trying to learn more and that its thoughts and prayers were with everyone on board, their families and loved ones.

The Boeing 777 had one of the best safety records in the industry. No one was killed aboard that model until in July 2013, when a 777 operated by Asiana Airlines crash-landed in San Francisco, resulting in three deaths. Flight 370, which was also a 777, disappeared March 8.


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