Malaysian airliner crashes in Eastern Ukraine

Russian media reports say a Malaysian airliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed in eastern Ukraine.

Malaysia Airlines reported on Twitter that it lost contact of a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Ukrainian airspace Thursday. The plane was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members.

A Ukrainian interior ministry official, Anton Gerashchenko, said the airliner was hit by a ground-to-air missile. In a posting on his Facebook page, Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said the plane was flying at 33,000 feet when it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher.

The Buk is a sophisticated, medium-range, Russian-designed surface-to-air missile systems that can fire missiles up to 72,000 feet.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statment on the presidential website that he does not rule out that the airliner was shot down but stressed that the Ukrainian military was not involved.

“We do not rule out that this plane has been shot down but emphasize that the Armed Forces of Ukraine were not engaged in any activity involving hitting targets in the air,” the statement said.

Poroshenko also expressed his condolences to the families and loved ones of those affected by what he described as “this terrible tragedy”.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. officials have been in touch with Ukrainian officials about the reports, but declined to elaborate. A Pentagon spokesman told reporters that U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been briefed about the Malaysian Airlines crash but ‘cannot confirm details’.

Crash location
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted “a source in aviation circles” as saying the plane crashed near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is located near the border with Russia and has seen heavy fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists. An airstrike there earlier this week killed 11 people. It is unclear who carried out that attack; the rebels blamed Ukraine’s air force.

Around the time the first reports of the airliner crash came in Thursday, the separatists claimed they had downed a Ukrainian An-26 miltary transport plane near the town of Torez, which is less then 10 kilomters from Snizhne.

Social media postings on Twitter and the Russian site VKontakte that were attributed to a top leader of the pro-Russian insurgency, Igor Strelkov, claimed that insurgents had shot down an Antonov An-26 heavy engine prop plane at around the same time Thursday that the Malaysian airliner went down. The posting, which also included video showing smoke rising purportedly from the fields outside the village of Torez, was posted at 5:50 p.m. Moscow time, and read:

“In the vicinity of Torez, an An-26 was just shot down, falling somewhere in the vicinity of the Progress coal mine. We warned them about this: Don’t fly over ‘our skies.’ And here is video confirmation of the latest ‘bird strike.’ The bird fell near the slagheap, the residential district was struck. No civilians suffered. There’s also information about a second downed plane, apparently an Su (Sukhoi).”

There was no immediate way to authenticate the video or the postings, although the claims appeared to match up with initial reports about when and where the Malaysian airliner went down. The posting was later removed from the VKontakte page.

A later posting on both the same VKontatke page and the Twitter feed linked to Strelkov quoted a top official with the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, as confirming that a passenger jet had crashed neared Torez, but denied involvement. The post instead instead suggested Ukrainian forces were responsible.

On Monday, a Ukrainian military An-26 was downed in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region.

Pro-Russian separatists claimed responsibility for hitting a Ukrainian Su-25 flying over eastern Ukraine with a missile earlier Wednesday. The pilot of that plane managed to bring it down safely. Also Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said a missile fired by a Russian warplane hit and brought down a Ukrainian Su-25 flying over eastern Ukraine, but that the pilot safely ejected.

Source: Mary Alice Salinas contributed to this report from the White House, Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon.