The killing of 295 people aboard a Malaysian airliner brought down over eastern Ukraine sharply raised the stakes in a conflict between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels in which Russia and the West back opposing sides.
Ukraine accused “terrorists” — militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia — of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with a heavy, Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Leaders of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement, although around the same time their military commander said his forces had downed a much smaller Ukrainian transport plane. It would be their third such kill this week.
The scale of the disaster affecting scores of foreigners could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve a crisis that has claimed hundreds of lives in Ukraine since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed Crimea a month later.
There was burning and charred wreckage bearing the red and blue Malaysia insignia and dozens of bodies strewn in fields near the village of Hrabove, 40km from the Russian border near the rebel-held regional capital of Donetsk.
Despite the shooting down of several Ukrainian military aircraft in the area in recent months and renewed accusations from Kiev that Russian forces were taking a direct part, international air lanes had remained open.
As word came in of what Ukraine’s Western-backed president called a “terrorist attack“, Obama was on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, discussing a new round of economic sanctions that Washington and its EU partners imposed on Moscow on Wednesday to try to force Putin to do more to curb the revolt against the Western-backed government in Kiev.
They noted the early reports during their telephone call, the White House said, adding that Obama warned of further sanctions if Moscow did not change course in Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines said air traffic controllers lost contact with flight MH-17 at 1415 GMT as it flew over eastern Ukraine towards the Russian border, bound for Asia with 280 passengers and 15 crew aboard. Flight tracking data indicated it was at its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet when it disappeared.
That would be beyond the range of smaller rockets used by the rebels to bring down helicopters and other low-flying Ukrainian military aircraft — but not of the SA-11 system which a Ukrainian official accused Russia of supplying to the rebels.
“I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang,” one local man at told Reuters at Hrabove, known in Russian as Grabovo. “Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke.”
An emergency worker said that bodies and debris was spread over 15 km. People were scouring the area for the black box flight recorders and separatists were later quoted as saying they had found one.
“MH-17 is not an incident or catastrophe, it is a terrorist attack,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted. He has stepped up his military campaign against the rebels since a ceasefire late last month failed to produce any negotiations.
Russia, which Western powers accuse of trying to destabilise Ukraine to maintain influence over its old Soviet empire, has accused Kiev’s leaders of mounting a fascist coup. It says it is holding troops in readiness to protect Russian-speakers in the east — the same rationale it used for taking over Crimea.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry official Anton Gerashchenko said on Facebook: “Just now, over Torez, terrorists using a Buk anti-aircraft system kindly given to them by Putin have shot down a civilian airliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.”
The Buk — which means beech tree in Russia — is a truck-mounted, radar-guided missile system, codenamed SA-11 Gadfly by Cold War Nato adversaries. The 1970s, vintage system fires a 5.7-metre (19-foot), 55-kg (110-lb) missile for up to 28 km (18 miles).
“There is no limit to the cynicism of Putin and his terrorists!” Gerashchenko wrote on the social media site. “Europe, USA, Canada, the civilised world, open your eyes! Help us in any way you can! This is a war of good against evil!”
He also published a photograph he said showed a Buk launcher in the centre of the town of Torez yesterday. It was not possible to verify the image.
A rebel leader said Ukrainian forces shot the airliner down and that rebel forces did not have weaponry capable of hitting a plane flying 10 km (six miles) up. Ukrainian officials said their military was not involved.
The military commander of the rebels, a Russian named Igor Strelkov, had written on his social media page at 1337 GMT, half an hour before the last reported contact with MH-17, that his forces had brought down an Antonov An-26 in the same area.
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 was downed on Wednesday by an air-to-air missile.
Moscow has denied its forces are involved.
The attack coincided with the 18th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800. The Boeing 747 was travelling from New York to Paris when it exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean nine miles off the coast of New York on July 17, 1996. The crash killed all 230 passengers and crew
It is not the first time a civilian airliner has been shot down.
In 1988, an Iran Air flight from Tehran to Dubai was shot down by the US warship USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf. All 290 on board, including 66 children and 16 crew, died.
It is also a reminder of events more than 30 years involving a Korean Airlines flight.
In an incident still shrouded in controversy and conspiracy theories, a Korean Airlines flight 007, flying from Alaska to Seoul in South Korea, was shot down by a Russian fighter on September 1 1983.
The aircraft came down at sea, killing all 269 people on board.
It had entered Soviet airspace and it later transpired that it had flown a long way off course. But this was the height of the Cold War and there were 61 Americans on board the doomed plane, so immediately recriminations began.
The Soviets assumed the passenger plane was a US spy aircraft while the US President Ronald Reagan called it “a massacre” and “a crime against humanity”.
Initially, the Soviet Union denied responsibility. Years later the Russians conceded that the Soviet action had been tragic but necessary, given just how far off course the civilian plane had got.
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