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Blown out of the sky with missile fired from the ground

Insurgents in Ukraine suspected of targeting passenger plane killing 295 people

By Andrew Buncombe and Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

Pro-Russian insurgents have been blamed after a Malaysia Airlines flight with 295 people on board was “blown out of the sky” over eastern Ukraine yesterday.

As the crisis in the region threatened to take on a dangerous global dimension, an investigation was launched into the circumstances.

Both the pro-Russian separatists and Kiev denied shooting down the Boeing 777, which had been flying at 33,000ft near the rebel-held village of Gravobo, 25 miles from the Russian border.

US vice president Joe Biden said the airliner had “apparently” been shot down.

“Shot down, not an accident. Blown out of the sky,” he said.

In the second disaster for the Malaysian carrier this year, the airline confirmed it had lost contact with Flight MH17 while it was en route from Amsterdam in Holland to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. There were 280 passengers and 15 crew on board and none survived.

The dead are believed to include 154 Dutch nationals, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians, 11 Indonesians, six Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one Canadian.

All 15 of the crew were Malaysian. There were no reports of any Irish people being on board, although the details of more than 60 passengers had not been established by last night.

The Boeing 777-200ER plane 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.

Images from the scene — a contested territory between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow rebels — showed piles of smoking debris and scores of bodies strewn over a large area, reportedly stretching up to 10 miles from the site of the impact. Some were still strapped into their seats.

Malaysia's prime minister said the jetliner did not make any distress call before it went down and that the flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said although Ukrainian authorities believe the jet was shot down, he was unable to verify “the cause of this tragedy but we must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight”.

One witness, who gave his name as Vladimir, told the Reuters news agency: “I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang and shots. Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke.”

Last night, authorities in Kiev said the plane was shot down by rebel forces and it was the third aircraft downed this week.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine bears responsibility for the disaster.

He said: “This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in south-east Ukraine.”

One pro-Russian separatist group appeared to claim responsibility for shooting down the jet yesterday afternoon, but the blog posting was quickly removed.

The leader Igor Strelkov — also known as Igor Girkin — bragged that his men had just shot down an aircraft. “In the district of Torez an An-26 was just shot down. It crashed somewhere near the Progress mine,” he wrote at 2.50pm BST. “We warned them not to fly in ‘our skies'. Here is video confirmation of the latest ‘fallen bird'. The bird landed outside the residential zone, no peaceful civilians were injured.”

But another leader of a pro-Russian rebel faction said his men did not have the capability to bring down a plane.

Rebel leader Alexander Borodai also said discussions were now under way with Ukrainian authorities for a three-day ceasefire to allow an investigation and for humanitarian efforts.

Questions were also asked as to why, given that several Ukrainian aircraft were attacked in the area, passenger airliners were still passing over the rebel-held area of Ukraine.

Lufthansa became the first of several airlines, including Air France, BA and Turkish Airlines, to announce they were diverting all flights from the region. It emerged the US Federal Aviation Administration warned US flights in April to avoid eastern Ukraine.

Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “shocked and saddened”, while US President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and discussed the crash on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A statement issued by Mr Putin’s office said he had expressed his condolences to the Malaysian premier.

Answers sought as US relations with Putin on brink

The United States and other Western powers were last night grasping for intelligence on the precise circumstances of the loss of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over eastern Ukraine.

They were searching for answers amid troubling, if as yet unproven, suspicions that Russia may in the end be forced to take either direct or indirect responsibility.

The diplomatic fall-out from the disaster is potentially enormous in scope and complexity.

However, determining what happens next means awaiting confirmation on what exactly happened the aircraft.

If indeed it was shot down, as appears to be the case, the question of who targeted it, and with what, will become paramount.

Terming the loss of the plane “a terrible tragedy”, President Barack Obama, who was on a previously scheduled visit to Delaware, said the US would help in every way possible to try to determine exact

ly what happened. He added that a first priority was to determine how many American passengers might have been on board.

Reports said that there were 23 Americans on the passenger manifest.

The crash came just one day after Washington imposed a new layer of economic sanctions on Russia for allegedly continuing to stoke the rebellion by pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine.

Among US complaints is that Moscow has allowed an unimpeded flow of weaponry across the border, possibly including surface-to-air missile launchers.

Earlier yesterday, Moscow had made public its dismay at the new US sanctions, with sharp comments, including from President Vladimir Putin.

“As far as sanctions are concerned, they usually have a boomerang effect, and will lead US-Russia relations down a dead end,” Mr Putin said. Before leaving for Delaware, Mr Obama spoke directly with Mr Putin by telephone.

The call, which had been requested by Moscow, was ostensibly about the sanctions.

However, officials in Moscow said Mr Putin informed President Obama about the loss of the Malaysian aircraft.

The US had already made clear that still tougher sanctions were on the table in case Russia fails to defuse the situation in Ukraine.

Should any evidence emerge that the jet was hit by weaponry fired by pro-Russian forces in that country and supplied by Moscow the chances of additional measures being imposed will surely grow dramatically.

Even more serious measures would be considered, however, were it ever to be determined that it was shot down by Russian forces directly, whether intentionally or accidentally.

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