A day after a Malaysia Airlines plane traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, the Malaysian transportation minister said he believed the crew bore no responsibility for the deadly flight plan.
"The flight path taken by MH17 was approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization and by the countries whose airspace the route passed through,” said Liow Tiong Lai at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. “Fifteen out of 16 airlines in the Assn. of Asia Pacific Airlines fly this route over Ukraine.”
The crash, which U.S. officials believe was caused by a surface-to-air missile, spread wreckage over a wide area in the contested territory around Donetsk and is presumed to have resulted in the deaths of all 298 people on board. Ukrainian officials have blamed pro-Russia separatists who control large parts of the area; the rebels have denied any involvement.
Liow, who took over the minister job from interim predecessor Hishammuddin Hussein just several weeks ago, and the embattled Malaysia Airlines have come under fire for the pilots’ decision to fly that route. Critics note that they chose the path despite the recent danger faced by Ukrainian military transport planes at the hands of rebel fighters -- and even though a number of European and other airlines had been choosing to circumvent the troubled airspace.
Liow -- who said that Malaysia Airlines would send a team of 62 to Kiev to assist with the post-crash efforts -- added that there had been “no last-minute instructions” to change the flight plan and called for an independent investigation into the incident.
Malaysia Airlines joined Liow in defending its use of the route over Ukraine, saying in a statement Friday that the flight plan had been approved by Eurocontrol, the air navigation service provider responsible for determining flight paths over Europe.
The airlines said that the course taken by the plane was a common one and that another flight from a different airliner was on the same route at the time of the MH17 crash in the region of Donetsk near the Russian border.
In April, the International Civil Aviation Organization identified an area over the Crimean peninsula as risky, Malaysia Airlines noted in its statement.
"At no point did MH17 fly into, or request to fly into, this area," the statement said. "At all times, MH17 was in airspace approved by the ICAO."
The airlines has said that MH17 had a clean maintenance record, with its last maintenance check on July 11, according to accounts from a Malaysia Airlines news conference in Amsterdam.
Determining the circumstances that led to the downing of the plane won’t be simple. While aviation disasters tend to spur high levels of multinational cooperation, that’s far less likely given the politically charged nature and geography of Thursday’s crash.
The intergovernmental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which counts Ukraine and Russia as members, said Thursday on behalf of itself and the two countries that an agreement had been secured from the rebels “to provide safe access and security guarantees” to investigators from Ukraine and other nations as well as to OSCE. A delegation from the group’s special monitoring mission in Kiev set out for Donetsk on Friday morning.
The separatist leader Andriy Purgin later in the day told Russia’s Interfax news agency that he and other rebels were prepared to declare a truce for as long as four days to allow investigators to visit the site.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also told Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Friday that he wanted a "thorough and unbiased" investigation, the Kremlin said.
But it remains to be seen if that goal is achievable given the various parties’ competing interests, and given the hostile climate between Ukraine and Russia dating back to Putin’s annexation of Crimea this spring. The two nations have also been engaged in a blame game over the crash too, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko saying Friday that “consequences of this war have already reached the whole world.”
Russia denied any involvement in the downed aircraft, saying it had not supplied separatists with a Buk missile system, which can propel missiles high into the air at great speed. Sergei Kavtaradze, a member of the Security Council of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, also told The Times on Thursday that it “was not us who shot down the plane because we don't have this hardware.”
But Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, said that rebels indeed had the weapon and that it had been provided by Russia. (Russian state TV noted in June that rebels had captured an anti-aircraft system from the Ukrainian army.)
It is also unclear how quickly or easily the rebel forces, led in part by Alexander Borodai and his Donetsk People's Republic, will in fact allow access to hard-fought territory. On Friday in Kiev, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said that “Ukrainian authorities are still not allowed to get to the crash site,” adding that “all red lines have been already crossed” with the incident.
Adding to the complications, Putin has been critical of the OSCE in the past, saying it is a cudgel for Western interests.
The investigation could yield significant geopolitical consequences. If it’s proved that Russia had a role in the downing of the plane, Putin could face increased pressure from the U.S. and the European Union to distance himself from the rebels.
The crash comes in the wake of recent gains by Ukraine’s military, which has won back at least half of the rebel territory in the past three weeks. But the fighting could intensify in the weeks ahead as separatists dig in for what experts believe could be a bloody urban battle.
Elsewhere in the country, the streets remained calm. In beachfront Odessa, far quieter this season because of the lack of Russian tourists, families and couples strolled in the city’s restaurant district Thursday night, while Friday morning in Kiev, commuters embarked on the morning rush in a scene that offered few hints of the ongoing battle in the east.
Times staff writer Don Lee in Washington contributed to this report.