October 24, 2021

Malaysia Airlines plane crashes in eastern Ukraine; U.S. intelligence blames missile

MOSCOW — A Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday with 295 people on board, and U.S. intelligence later confirmed that it was brought down by an antiaircraft missile.

The Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine immediately blamed each other for the crash, which occurred as the Boeing 777 was flying its regular route from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

President Obama said his administration was “working to determine whether there were American citizens on board” the downed plane. “It looks like it may be a terrible tragedy,” he told an audience in Wilmington, Del. Russia’s Interfax news agency said as many as 23 Americans may have been among the passengers. More than half the passengers were Dutch, the airline said.

Obama said U.S. national security officials are in close contact with the Ukrainian government. “The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why,” he said. Vice President Biden called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to extend that offer, the White House said.

Hours later, a U.S. official said American intelligence agencies had confirmed that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about an early intelligence assessment, said government analysts were scrambling to determine who fired the missile.

This untranslated news broadcast of the Russia-24 television channel shows the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, which may have been shot down by an antiaircraft missile. (Reuters)

“This is a contested area,” the official said. “It’s going to take time to get some information on the intentions of whoever was involved.”

An adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister wrote on Facebook that a Buk antiaircraft missile system shot down the plane over the village of Torez, about 25 miles east of the city of Donetsk and within territory held by pro-Russian separatist rebels. The adviser, Anton Herashenko, blamed the rebels for the attack.

Rebel spokesmen denied responsibility, shifting blame to Ukrainian government forces. The Ukrainian government said it had nothing to do with downing the plane.

“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,” Poroshenko said in a statement. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.”

A spokesman for Poroshenko later said: “We call it neither an incident, nor a disaster, but a terrorist act.”

Rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine denied possessing the Buk missile launcher, but journalists reported seeing a similar weapon in the region earlier Thursday.

The rebels did not allow government authorities access to the plane for the first hour after it crashed, a Ukrainian regional official said.

“We have managed to identify 30 corpses,” said Konstantin Batozsky, an adviser to Donetsk regional governor Serhiy Taruta. “They are scattered in a range of four kilometers [2.5 miles] around. It’s absolutely horrible.”

He said any investigation would be complicated by the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“We will collect all the parts from the airplane and move them to a secure place” away from the rebels, Batozsky said. “We should definitely move them.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said the airspace that Flight MH17 was traversing “was not subject to restrictions” and that the plane “did not make a distress call.”

“Malaysia Airlines is in the process of notifying the next-of-kin of the passengers and crew,” he said in a statement. “If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice.” Najib added that he had received a call from Obama and that they “agreed that the investigation must not be hindered in any way.” Specifically, Najib said, “An international team must have full access to the crash site. And no one should interfere with the area or move any debris, including the black box.”

The airline said on its Web site that it was notified by Ukrainian air traffic control that contact with the plane was lost over Ukraine about 36 miles from the border with Russia. Malaysia Airlines said the airliner, carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew, left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. local time Thursday and was scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 6:10 a.m. local time Friday.

A senior Malaysia Airlines official, Huib Gorter, later said the passenger manifest included 154 Dutch, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians, 11 Indonesians, six Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos and one Canadian. The nationalities of the remaining 32 passengers were not immediately disclosed. All 15 crew members were Malaysian.

Near the end of a Thursday morning phone conversation with Obama, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin “noted the early reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. Obama was being briefed on further developments, he said.

In the conversation, which was initiated to discuss U.S. sanctions against Russia over its involvement in Ukraine, Obama noted “extensive evidence that Russia is significantly increasing the provision of heavy weapons to separatists in Ukraine,” a White House statement said.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte interrupted a vacation in Germany and raced back to the Netherlands to deal with the crash’s aftermath. In a short statement, Rutte said that he was “deeply shocked” by the news and that he had spoken by phone with the Ukrainian president.

Ivo Opstelten, the Dutch justice and security minister, said there were “many” Dutch passengers on board the plane who were feared dead. Many of the passengers were likely planning to transit from Kuala Lumpur to other destinations, including Indonesia and Australia.

At the airport in Amsterdam, authorities cordoned off a section of the terminal for relatives of MH17 passengers. Two busloads of passengers’ relatives were later driven away from the main departure hall under police escort.

Luc Tytgat, a director at Eurocontrol, which directs air traffic across Europe, told the BBC that the airspace above eastern Ukraine has been closed to all commercial flights. The BBC quoted him as saying that four other commercial aircraft were in the same area as MH17 at the time of the crash but that they continued flying their routes.

Eurocontrol said in a statement that MH17 had been flying at 33,000 feet and that the airspace was open. But the organization said airspace up to 32,000 feet had been closed by Ukrainian authorities at the time of the crash.

Since the crash, all airspace in eastern Ukraine has been closed “until further notice,” and the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell has been activated to deal with the closure, Eurocontrol said.

In Moscow, aviation officials insisted that Russia be included in any international investigation of the crash. They said no Russian citizens were on board the plane.

A social media page that Ukrainian media frequently attribute to Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who describes himself as a rebel military leader in Donetsk, appeared to claim responsibility for the downed plane shortly after it went missing.

“We have just shot down an AN-26 plane in the Torez region, it is lying somewhere near the Progress mine,” read a post at 5:50 p.m. Moscow time on the social media site VKontakte. “We have warned emphatically: Do not fly in ‘our sky.’” The post then offered “video confirmation” of the crash.

The post was removed Thursday evening, shortly after reports confirmed that the crashed aircraft was a commercial airliner.

The initial post suggested that pro-Russian rebels mistook the aircraft for a Ukrainian military transport plane. Earlier this week, an AN-26 was brought down over the Luhansk region. Two crew members were reported killed.

The European Cockpit Association, which represents pilots, said in a statement that the route taken by MH17 was the most common one for flights from Europe to Southeast Asia.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration FAA said American carriers have voluntarily agreed not to operate in the airspace near the Russian-Ukrainian border. The agency said it is monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance is necessary.

The plane was on its usual flight path and did not appear to have deviated from previous routes used by MH17 in any significant way, the airline data firm FlightAware reported.

In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board. Authorities determined that it was diverted to a flight path that took it over the southern Indian Ocean, but an extensive search has failed to turn up any trace of that airliner.

Herashenko, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser, said on Facebook that “local patriots” reported the movement of the Buk missile system Thursday morning from Torez in the direction of Sneznoye. He said the Malaysian plane was flying at 10,000 meters (about 33,000 feet) en route to Kuala Lumpur.

The missile system was “generously provided” to the rebels by Putin, Herashenko charged. “There is no limit to the cynicism of Putin and his terrorists!” he said.

“Europe, Canada, the USA, the civilized world — open your eyes! Help us with everything you can!” he pleaded.

Herashenko said video from the site shows that “some jerks were shouting: Look, how wonderful it is burning! Beautiful!”

For their part, leaders of the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement in bringing down the airliner.

“The plane was shot down by the Ukrainian side,” said Serhiy Kavtaradze, a member of the rebels’ security council, according to Interfax. “We simply do not have such air defense systems.” He said rebels’ shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles “have a firing range of only 3,000 to 4,000 meters” (about 10,000 to 13,000 feet) and that passenger jets fly at much higher altitudes.

Kavtaradze expressed condolences to the victims’ families on behalf of separatist leaders, Interfax reported. “It is obvious that people died,” he said. “This is very dreadful news.”

The Ukrainian State Air Traffic Services Enterprise said it has launched an investigation into the incident.

Andrei Purgin, the first deputy prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 could have been brought down by Ukrainian forces.

“Very serious clashes are ongoing in the region where the Boeing crashed,” he told Interfax. “Non-top gunfire is under way there.”

He denied that the rebels possess the SA-17 Buk air-defense weapon, as Kiev alleges.

However, the Associated Press reported that a similar launcher was seen by the agency’s journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday. The Buk missile system can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet), AP said.

Ukrainian authorities said Thursday that a Ukrainian air force Su-25 jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane Wednesday evening, forcing the pilot to bail out.

The downing of the close-air-support jet provided further evidence of direct Russian support for the separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials said. Ukraine charged that a military transport plane was shot down Monday by a missile fired from Russian territory.

The rebels claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Su-25 jets, AP reported. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile but that the pilot was unharmed and managed to land the plane safely.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that if the Malaysian airliner turns out to have been shot down by pro-Russian separatists, “it represents a tragic and dramatic escalation of this conflict.”

“It’s been clear from the beginning that, notwithstanding Putin’s duplicitous statements to the contrary, Russia has continued to stoke the conflict and allow violent separatists in eastern Ukraine access to an array of Russian armaments,” he said.

Schiff said European governments should follow Washington’s lead in imposing tougher sanctions on Moscow. “It’s plain that until Russia stops its support of the separatists, this conflict — and all the loss of life it has occasioned — will not end,” he said.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged Americans to await the facts.

“Many innocents were killed today,” Boehner said in a statement. “It is horrifying. . . . Right now, we should all take a moment to reflect, count our blessings, and convey our prayers to the loved ones of the victims.”

Three commercial airliners have been shot down over the past 36 years. A Korean Airlines plane that strayed over the Soviet Union was fired on by a Soviet fighter jet in 1978 and forced to make an emergency landing; two of the 97 passengers on board were killed. Another Korean Airlines plane was shot down by an air-to-air missile during an errant flight over Soviet territory in 1983; all 269 people on board were killed.

In 1988, a U.S. Navy ship shot down an Iran Air jetliner over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board.

Branigin and Londoño reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung, David Beard, Ashley Halsey III and Katie Zezima in Washington, Karoun Demirjian in Moscow, Griff Witte in London and Ferry Biedermann in Amsterdam contributed to this report.