Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine, 27 Australians on board

MH17 'perpetrators must be brought to justice': Tony Abbott shares his condolences for the families of the Australians confirmed onboard flight MH17.

London: A Malaysia Airlines plane en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has been shot down in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, claiming the lives of 295 passengers and crew. Dutch authorities have said 27 Australians were on board.

It was originally reported that 295 passengers and crew were on board the plane. However, Malaysia Airlines has updated the figures to 283 passengers and 15 crew members.

"This is a grim day for our country and it's a grim day for our world," prime minister Tony Abbott said in a speech to parliament, in which he said the plane appeared to have been brought down by Russian-backed rebels.

"As things stand this looks less like an accident than a crime. And if so the perpetrators must be brought to justice."

The tragedy marks a serious escalation of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and comes only months after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 mysteriously disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean. It also represents a significant loss of Australian life.

DFAT urged family members unable to contact next of kin to call its 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre on 61 2 6261 3305 from overseas. Within Australia, the number is 1300 555 135. 

"If you have any concerns for the welfare of Australian family or friends, you should attempt to directly contact them," the Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said.

There were 154 Dutch passengers. Malaysia Airlines said there were also 45 Malaysian, 12 Indonesian, and nine British passengers aboard the flight. 

Bodies and burning wreckage were scattered over the countryside near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

Abbott responds

Earlier in the day Mr Abbott called a meeting of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet in response to the crash.

Mr Abbott used strong language in describing the event to media and in parliament.

''They (the militants) are Russian proxies essentially," he said in an interview on radio. "This is only happening because Russia wants to stir up trouble."

''Now, it’s important that we don't make a situation worse, but if, as now sees certain, it has been brought down by a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile, Russia bears a heavy share of responsibility.”

Missile strike

US intelligence officials confirmed that a surface-to-air missile brought down the airline. However, which side used the missile was less clear, officials said. A radar system reportedly saw a surface-to-air missile system turn on and track an aircraft just before the plane went down.

Another system saw a heat signature when the airliner was hit in the air. Experts were tracing the missile's trajectory to work out whether it was launched from Ukraine or Russian territory. 

Independent Western defence experts say both Ukrainian and Russian armed forces possess SA-17 missile launchers capable of reaching an altitude of 20,000 metres and that pro-Moscow insurgents may have gotten their hands on one to two surface-to-air missiles when Ukrainian forces retreated.

A launcher similar to the SA-17 missile system, also known as Buk, was seen by AP journalists earlier on Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.

The International Air Transportation Association said that the airspace the aircraft was traveling through was not subject to restrictions, according to the Malaysian Prime Minister's office.

However, Aviation safety authorities in the US and Europe warned pilots in April about potential risks flying in or near Ukraine airspace.

A man who said he believes he had a relative on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Picture: REUTERS

A man who said he believes he had a relative on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Picture: REUTERS

The US Federal Aviation Administration on April 23 issued a "special notice" regarding Ukrainian airspace to US aviators and air carriers advising them not to fly in airspace around the Crimean city of Simferopol without special approval of the US government.

Eastern Ukraine has been racked for months by a violent pro-Russian separatist uprising in which a number of military aircraft have been downed. The geopolitical tussle has plunged relations between the US and Russia to their lowest level since the Cold War.

This would be the first commercial airline disaster to result from the hostilities. Despite the turmoil in eastern Ukraine, the commercial airspace over that part of the country is a heavily trafficked route and has remained open.

Malaysia Airlines said MH17 did not make a distress call.

Blame

US Vice-President Joe Biden said the Malaysia Airlines aircraft was “apparently” shot down.

While stressing that the US did not have all the details, Mr Biden described the plane as, "Shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin put the blame for the crash squarely on Ukraine's government.

"I want to point out that this tragedy wouldn't have happened if there was peace in this land, or at least if fighting hadn't resumed in the south-east of Ukraine," Mr Putin said. "And undoubtedly, the state on whose territory this happened is responsible for this awful tragedy."

Social media posts by pro-Russian insurgents -- most of them hastily removed -- suggest the rebels thought they had shot down a Ukrainian army plane before realising in horror that it was in fact a packed Malaysian airliner.

The Twitter and blog messages were immediately publicised by top Kiev officials in their furious information war with the Kremlin for global opinion and the hearts and minds of ethnic Russians caught in the East-West crisis.

Asked if Australia would still welcome Mr Putin to the G20 Summit to be hosted in Brisbane in November, Australia's PM Tony Abbott said: "Let's just wait and see exactly what turns out to have happened here."

Malaysia airlines

Malaysia Airlines, still reeling from the mysterious loss of another Boeing 777 flight in March, confirmed that Ukrainian air traffic control lost contact with flight MH17 at 1415 (GMT), approximately 50 kilometres from the Russia-Ukraine border.

Flight MH17, operated on a Boeing 777, left Amsterdam at 12.15pm (Amsterdam local time) and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6.10am (Malaysia local time) the next day.

Online videos showed thick plumes of smoke coming from the crash site.

Ukraine officials and anti-Russian activists claimed it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched by pro-Russian separatists, with one media report blaming Russian-backed Cossack militants.

Reports in Russian media pointed to the Ukrainian military.

Freelance journalist Noah Sneider, at the crash site, reported: "Locals say everything exploded in the air, fell in pieces, both bodies and plane itself. People thought they were being bombed."

After the crash, other airlines were rerouting flights around the conflict area.

A New York Times reporter at the site said the plane came to rest in a wheatfield. Many of the passengers’ bodies were still belted in their seats and attached to pieces of the plane, she said.

The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, familiar with the glare of scrutiny following the missing MH370 flight saga, conveyed sympathy and support to family and friends of the victims.

"At this early stage, however, Malaysia is unable to verify the cause of this tragedy," he said.

"But we must – and we will – find out precisely what happened to this flight.

"No stone can be left unturned.

"If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice."

Black box 

An Emergencies Ministry member walks through the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash site near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region. Picture: REUTERS

An Emergencies Ministry member walks through the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash site near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region. Picture: REUTERS

Russian newsagency Interfax reported that pro-Russian separatists claimed to have found the black box flight recorders from the plane.

Separatist leaders said they would send the plane’s flight recorders to Moscow for examination - something Mr Najib urged against.

"An international team must have full access to the crash site," Mr Najib said.

"And no one should interfere with the area, or move any debris, including the black box," he said.

Ukraine's response

An adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, Anton Gerashenko, said the plane was "hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher”.

However, Andrei Purgin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, the insurgent group in eastern Ukraine, denied in a telephone interview that the rebels had anything to do with the loss of the passenger jet.

He said that the rebels had shot down Ukrainian planes before but that their anti-aircraft weapons could reach only to about 4000 metres, far below the cruising level of passenger jets.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the crash of Malaysia Airlines MH17 a 'terrorist act' and blamed pro-Russian rebels on shooting it down. Picture: REUTERS

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the crash of Malaysia Airlines MH17 a 'terrorist act' and blamed pro-Russian rebels on shooting it down. Picture: REUTERS

"We don't have the technical ability to hit a plane at that height," he said.

He said the plane apparently came down in an area of Ukrainian military operations and that it was not out of the question that the Ukrainians themselves shot it down.

According to an online flight tracking site, the plane's last known position was near Donetsk at an altitude of just over 10 kilometres.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Areseny Yatseniuk ordered an investigation into the "airplane catastrophe", his spokeswoman Olga Lappo said.

Ukraine's President, Petro Poroshenko, reportedly called it a “terrorist act”, saying two Ukraine warplanes had been shot down from Russian territory in recent days.

He said Ukraine's armed forces were not involved, and on behalf of the state expressed his "deepest and most sincere condolences to the families and relatives of those killed in this terrible tragedy."

"Poroshenko thinks this of the plane that was brought down: it is not an incident, not a catastrophe, but a terrorist act," his press secretary Svatoslav Tsegolko said.

"We are confident that those responsible for this tragedy will be brought to justice," he said.

Claims, counterclaims

Within hours of the crash, Ukrainian media blamed Russian-backed Cossack militants, publishing what the Kyiv Post said was the content of a phone call between members of Russian-backed militant groups, intercepted by Ukraine's security agency.

The phone call was made 20 minutes after the crash, the Kyiv Post reported, by Igor Bezler, military commander of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic.

He was said to be reporting to a Russian army colonel in their intelligence department.

In a transcript of the conversation Mr Bezler says "We have just shot down a plane."

US President Barack Obama said it looked like a "terrible tragedy" and the US would offer any assistance it could to determine what happened and why.

His thoughts and prayers were with all those on board.

EU President Jose Barroso tweeted that the crash was “truly shocking”.

“Facts need to be established immediately. My thoughts with families of victims,” he wrote.

The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was flying back from Brussels to deal with the crisis.

People, who said they believed their relatives were on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, react as they wait for more information about the plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Picture: REUTERS

People, who said they believed their relatives were on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, react as they wait for more information about the plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Picture: REUTERS

The senior vice president of Malaysia Airlines gave a press conference detailing the known nationalities of those on board MH17:

  • 27 Australians
  • 154 Dutch
  • 23 Malaysian
  • 11 Indonesians
  • 6 British
  • 4 German
  • 4 Belgian
  • 3 Filipino
  • 1 Canadian
  • A number unaccounted for  

With Reuters, New York Times, Nick O'Malley, Lindsay Murdoch

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