HRABOVE, Ukraine: A Malaysia Airlines passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down over eastern Ukraine Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, and both the government and pro-Russia separatists 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 kilometers from the Russian border.
The Boeing 777-200ER plane, traveling 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.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation, insisting insisted that his forces did not shoot down the plane.
His state security chief, however, accused two Russian military intelligence officers of involvement in the incident, saying that they should be punished for the “crime.”
Valentyn Nalivaychenko said he based his allegation on phone intercepts between the two officers.
A Russian news agency quoted a leader of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russia rebels as saying they intend to call a three-day cease fire to allow an investigation of the crash.
President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and discussed the matter by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The village of Hrabove is currently under the control of pro-Russia separatists and the area has seen fierce fighting between the two sides in recent days.
Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to the crash. Within hours, several airlines, including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM, released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.
Malaysia Airlines 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 10,000 meters when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters.
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.
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 meters.
A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by AP journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
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 and has not been found.
There have been several disputes over planes being shot down over eastern Ukraine in recent days.
Wednesday evening, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said, adding to what Kiev says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatists.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Russia did not shoot down the Ukrainian fighter jet. “We didn’t do it,” Churkin said.
Many airlines had continued to use the Ukraine route despite warnings not to because of the fighting, said Norman Shanks, former head of group security at airports group BAA and professor of aviation security at Coventry University in England.
“It is a busy aviation route and there have been suggestions that a notice was given to aviators telling airlines to avoid that particular area,” Shanks said.
“But Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, have been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money.”