A Malaysian airliner was brought down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 295 people aboard, raising the stakes in the conflict between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels and prompting EU and US calls for an international investigation into the crash.
Ukraine accused militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with a heavy, Soviet-era SA-11 surface-to-air missile (SAM) 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.
Reuters journalists saw 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.
As word came in of what Ukraine’s president called a ‘terrorist attack’, US President Barack Obama was on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, discussing a new round of economic sanctions that Washington and its European Union 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.
“The circumstances must be clarified without delay and the international investigation must shed full light on this tragedy,” EU policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
Malaysia Airlines said air traffic controllers lost contact with Malaysia Airlines 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 rebels to bring down helicopters and other low-flying Ukrainian military aircraft, but not of the SA-11 SAM 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. “Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke.”
An emergency worker said at least 100 bodies had been found so far and that debris was spread over 15km.
People were scouring the area for the black box flight recorders and separatists were later quoted as saying they had found one.
Terrorist attack, not an accident
“MH-17 is not an incident or catastrophe, it is a terrorist attack,” Ukraine’s 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.
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 1970s vintage, truck-mounted, radar-guided missile system, codenamed SA-11 Gadfly by NATO. It fires a 5.7-metre, 55kg missile for up to 28km.
“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 on Thursday. It was not possible to verify the image.
Rebels reject accusations
A rebel leader said Ukrainian forces shot the airliner down and that rebel forces did not have weaponry capable of hitting a plane flying 10km up. Ukrainian officials said their military was not involved in the incident.
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. It is a turboprop transport plane of a type used by Ukraine’s forces. There was no comment on that from the Ukrainian military.
Second tragedy for Malaysia Airlines
The loss of MH-17 is the second disaster for Malaysia Airlines this year, following the mysterious loss of flight MH-370. It disappeared in March with 239 passengers and crew on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2014.