Malaysia Airlines Plane Crashes In Ukraine With 295 on Board

By Dow Jones Business News, 

By Paul Sonne and Alan Cullison

A Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 passengers and crew crashed Thursday while flying over the battle-torn east Ukraine region of Donetsk, triggering accusations that one or the other side of the conflict had shot down the aircraft by accident.

Malaysia Airlines said contact was lost with Flight 17 about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russia-Ukraine border. The Boeing 777 departed from Amsterdam around noon on Thursday and was due to arrive in Kuala Lumpur early Friday.

Ukraine's state air-traffic control service confirmed the flight had crashed and said a special investigation commission has been rushed to the scene.

The plane went down near the village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region while flying at a height of about 10,000 meters (32,800 feet), according to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine'sInterior Ministry.

The crash immediately sparked speculation about the cause. For months, Ukrainian forces have been trying to subdue pro-Russia separatists who seized towns across the region in April and declared an independent republic. The fighting escalated this week when Ukrainian authorities reported that one of its military cargo planes and one of its military fighter jets had been downed in the area.

The disaster comes as a new trauma for Malaysia Airlines, the carrier already at the center of a global mystery over the disappearance of one of its flights in March, another Boeing 777 that went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Footage captured by locals from the wreckage site showed a massive grey plume of smoke emerging from a field before sunset. Subsequent images pictured Ukrainian emergency forces hosing down the wreckage, as well as passports, tickets and pieces of bodies found in tact near the crash site.

The war of accusations kicked off immediately after the crash. In a phone call with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Gerashchenko alleged that pro-Russia rebels had set up a ground-to-missile battery near the Russian border by the town of Snizhne.

"They clearly thought that it was a military transport plane that they were shooting at," he said. "They were the ones who did this." His claims couldn't be verified.

In a Facebook post, Mr. Gerashchenko alleged that the separatists had obtained a Buk surface-to-air missile system that he said locals saw them parading near the towns of Snizhne and Torez during the day on Thursday. He said a convoy with the anti-aircraft missile was seen heading toward Shakhtarsk, a town not far from the crash site, about an hour before the plane went down late Thursday afternoon.

In late June, separatist leaders told the Russian news outlets RIA Novosti and Interfax that they had taken control of a Ukrainian air-defense base near the village of Oleksiivka equipped with Buk missiles. The Donetsk People's Republic also posted a photo of the missiles, sometimes known as Gadfly systems, on its official Twitter feed at the time, declaring a victory in having seized the weaponry.

But on Thursday, separatist leaders denied that they had surface-to-air missiles such as the Buk system that were powerful enough to shoot down a Boeing 777 flying at such a height.

Sergei Kavtaradze, one of the leaders of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, accused Ukrainian forces of having shot down the plane.

"The plane was shot down by the Ukrainian side," he told the Interfax news agency. "We simply don't have those kind of air defense systems."

Ukraine's president and prime minister didn't immediately assign blame for the incident.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk ordered a special investigation into the crash, as well as the downing of a Ukrainian AN-26 military cargo aircraft and a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet in the same area earlier this week.

"This is the third tragic incident in recent days after the AN-26 and SU-25 were shot down," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement. "We can't rule out that this plane was also shot down, but we underscore that the Ukrainian armed forces were not carrying out any actions to strike airborne targets."

If a passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine, attackers would have had to use a sophisticated surface-to-air missile system, not the shoulder-fired weapons that are more accessible and easier to use.

Those weapons, nicknamed manpads, have been used in attacks against commercial aircraft in the past. But their range is much lower than the cruising altitude of 30,000 feet usually used by passenger jets.

The Federal Aviation Administration said that Ukraine had advised pilots on Monday not to fly over the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine at altitudes between 26,000 and 32,000 feet--a height that Flight 17 appeared to have been exceeding before it crashed.

Under a codeshare agreement between Malaysia Air and the Dutch airline KLM, the downed flight was also flying as Flight KL4103. Dutch public broadcaster NOS reported that at least 55 Dutch citizens were on board the plane, based on early estimates of domestic travel agencies. Relatives of passengers gathered late Thursday at a restaurant in Amsterdam'sSchiphol Airport to be briefed by officials. The people were escorted by security officers and couldn't be approached for comment.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said at least four French citizens were on board Flight 17. Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and Air India announced that they would no longer route planes over the contested regions of eastern Ukraine. The FAA said U.S. airlines had also agreed to avoid the region.

Mr. Poroshenko expressed condolences to the relatives of those killed and said Ukrainian authorities were engaging in all possible rescue efforts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his sympathies to the prime minister of Malaysia for the crash over Ukrainian airspace, according to a statement published on the Kremlin's website.

"The Russian head of state asked to convey his most sincere words of sympathy and support to the families and friends of the victims," the Kremlin said.

In 2001, the Ukrainian military mistakenly shot down a commercial passenger jet that was en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk with a land-to-air missile that was fired during a military exercise. All the 66 passengers and 12 crew members on board the plane were killed in the blast.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak expressed shock and said the government was launching an immediate investigation into the incident.

Robert Wall, Alexander Kolyandr and Andrey Ostroukh contributed to this article.

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