HRABOVE, Ukraine – A Malaysia Airlines passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, and both the government and the pro-Russia separatists fighting in the region denied any responsibility for downing the aircraft.
As plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village of Hrabove, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the wreckage site 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Russian border.
The village is under the control of pro-Russia separatists and the area has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days. Rebel fighters at the scene of the wreckage had piled up victims’ possessions into heaps and threatened reporters attempting to film footage.
The insurrection started after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office in February by a protest movement among people wanting closer ties with the European Union instead of Russia.
A Russian news report said pro-Russia rebels intend to call a three-day cease-fire to allow for an investigation into the crash and recovery efforts.
The Boeing 777-200ER, travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, appeared to have broken up before impact and the burning wreckage — which included body parts and the belongings of passengers — was scattered over a wide area.
The cockpit and one of the turbines lay at a distance of one 1 kilometre (more than a half-mile) from one another. Residents said the tail had landed around 10 kilometres (six miles) further away. Pieces of charred bodies and bones were spread around the field. Rescue workers planted sticks with white flags in spots where they found body parts.
Some journalists attempting to reach the crash site were detained briefly by rebel militiamen, who were nervous and aggressive.
There was no indication there were any survivors. Malaysia’s prime minister said the plane didn’t make any distress call before it went down, and that the flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters that Malaysia was unable to verify “the cause of this tragedy but we must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash. He insisted that his forces did not shoot down the plane.
At least 154 people on the flight were Dutch citizens, said Huib Gorter, Malaysian Airlines senior vice-president in Europe. There were also 27 Australians on board, 23 Malaysians, including all 15 crew, and 11 Indonesians.
Other nationalities so far identified were six passengers from the United Kingdom, four from Germany, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one Canadian. There are still 47 dead whose nationalities haven’t yet been confirmed, he added.
Ukraine’s security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that they said showed rebels were responsible. In the first call, the security services said, rebel commander Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence officer that rebel forces shot down a plane.
In the second, two rebel fighters — one of them at the scene of the crash — say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of the crash site.
Neither recording could be independently verified.
Earlier in the week, the rebels had claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military planes.
President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and talked about it on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Later, Putin said Ukraine bears responsibility for the crash. But he didn’t address the question of who might have shot down the plane and didn’t accuse Ukraine of doing so.
“This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin statement issued early Friday. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”
Britain has asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine.
The RIA-Novosti agency on Thursday quoted rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying discussions were underway with Ukrainian authorities on calling a short truce for humanitarian reasons. He said international organizations would be allowed into the conflict-plagued region.
Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to Thursday’s crash, but many airliners had continued to use the route because “it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money,” said aviation expert Norman Shanks.
Within hours of Thursday’s crash, several airlines, including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM, released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.
Malaysia Airlines said Ukrainian aviation authorities told the company they had lost contact with Flight MH17 at 1415 GMT (10 a.m. EDT) about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Tamak waypoint, which is 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Russia-Ukraine border.
It said the plane was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members. It had left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. Friday.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 10,000 metres (33,000 feet) when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 metres (72,000 feet). He said only that his information was based on “intelligence.”
Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have SA-17 missile systems — also known as Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.
Rebels had bragged recently about having acquired Buk systems.
He said Russia had supplied separatist rebels with military hardware, but he had seen no evidence “of the transfer of that type of system from Russia.” The weapons that the rebels are known to have do not have the capacity to reach beyond 4,500 metres. (14,750 feet)
A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
The Malaysia Airlines plane was delivered to the company on July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets. It has more than 43,000 hours of flight time and 6,950 takeoffs and landings.
Poroshenko said his country’s armed forces didn’t shoot at any airborne targets.
“We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” he said. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.”
The Kremlin said Putin “informed the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory” without giving further details about their call. The White House confirmed the call.
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told The Associated Press that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down, but gave no explanation or proof for his statement.
Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, they had no fighters capable of operating it.
Around the time the plane crashed, Russian media quoted witnesses as saying they saw a plane being hit by what they thought was a rocket.
It was the second time that a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been attending a European Union summit in Brussels, headed back to the Netherlands to deal with the crash.
In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of those onboard the Malaysian airliner came to the international airport.
A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming to visit the family in Kuala Lumpur for the first time in five years.
“She called me just before she boarded the plane and said ‘see you soon,'” Akmar said.
There have been several disputes over planes being shot down over eastern Ukraine in recent days.
On Wednesday evening, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday, adding to what Kyiv says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatist insurgents. Ukraine Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said the pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet hit by the air-to-air missile was forced to bail after his jet was shot down.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that Russia did not shoot down the Ukrainian fighter jet on Wednesday. “We didn’t do it,” Churkin said.
Pro-Russia rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, but added the pilot was unscathed and managed to land his plane safely.
Moscow denies Western charges that is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest in its neighbour.
Earlier this week, Ukraine said a military transport plane was shot down Monday over eastern Ukraine by a missile fired from Russian territory.
Flights that were airborne when the Malaysia Airlines jet crashed have been re-routed, transportation officials said.
Peter Leonard reported from Kyiv with contributions from an Associated Press reporter in Hrabove. Also contributing to this report were AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York; Jill Lawless and Matthew Knight in London; Laura Mills and Jim Heintz in Moscow; Darlene Superville in Washington; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Eileen Ng and Satish Cheney in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.