A Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile Thursday over separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, apparently killing all 298 people on board and dramatically raising stakes in the conflict with the Kremlin-backed forces.
U.S. intelligence sources said tracking data from spy satellites and radar confirmed that the Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was hit in midair, but they couldn’t immediately determine where the missile was launched.
Ukrainian officials said that Russia had recently supplied the separatists with the mobile Buk surface-to-air launching system, and that the military had not fired any antiaircraft missiles during the conflict with the separatists, which began in mid-April. A number of Ukrainian military aircraft have been shot down by the separatists.
Although Russia denied involvement, the downing of a passenger jet flying on a heavily traveled international route could sharply increase pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is accused by the United States, its allies and the Ukrainian government of backing the separatists.
Before the loss of the passenger jet Thursday, fighting in eastern Ukraine had claimed at least 500 lives in the four months since Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, inspiring the separatists now occupying much of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration stepped up sanctions against Russia for supporting the separatists, targeting some of the country’s largest financial institutions, energy companies and weapons firms.
The loss of another plane dealt a new blow to Malaysia Airlines. It hasn’t solved the mystery of what happened to Flight 370, which disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March.
Ukrainian Security Service communications intercepts made public after the early evening crash of Flight 17 suggest coordination between the separatists and Russian fighters across the border.
Malaysia Airlines said it lost contact with Flight 17, carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members, after the aircraft failed to confirm its entry into Russian airspace on schedule at 5:20 p.m. The last contact was recorded about 4:20 p.m. by air traffic controllers.
The plane “disappeared from radar at [33,000 feet] and then crashed near the city of Shakhtersk in Ukraine’s Donetsk region,” the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.
Witnesses in the militant-held crash area about 25 miles west of the Russian border described a gut-wrenching scene.
“Distorted bodies of dead people and body parts are lying around everywhere in an open field,” Sergei Kavtaradze, a member of the Security Council of the separatists’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a phone interview.
Two things were clear from rescue workers’ reports, he said: Everyone on board was killed, and it “was not us who shot down the plane because we don’t have this hardware.”
Ukrainian officials disputed that assertion. Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Interior Ministry, said Russia had recently supplied mobile missile systems to the separatists that are capable of taking down a plane at that altitude.
He demanded that Putin face an international tribunal in the disaster.
Neither the Kremlin nor major Russian media responded to the accusations that Moscow was behind the jet’s downing. But Putin told his economic advisors meeting early Friday that the disaster was Ukraine’s fault because of its offensive against separatists.
“This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeastern Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy,” the Kremlin news service quoted him as saying.
Ukrainian officials earlier Thursday accused Russian forces of being behind the downing the day before of a Ukrainian SU-25 ground-support warplane near Donetsk.
Shortly after the airliner went down, the former Russian special forces officer commanding the separatists in eastern Ukraine claimed responsibility for shooting down an AN-26 Ukrainian military transport plane.
“We warned them not to fly in our skies,” Igor Strelkov said on his Facebook page. “Peaceful people didn’t suffer.”
He posted a video that later was removed from the page.
Pro-Russia separatists were the first to reach the crash site.
“Our self-defense units are already on the site,” said Andrei Purgin, first deputy premier of the breakaway region. “They already reported many dead passengers, including children.”
Sergei Taruta, the Kiev-appointed governor of the Donetsk region sidelined by the militants, said the separatists were blocking the crash site.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted Donetsk separatist leader Oleksandr Boroday as saying the separatists were calling a two- to three-day cease-fire to facilitate investigation of the crash. Boroday was quoted as saying the incident appeared to have been a “provocation.”
In spite of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, dozens of Europe-to-Asia flights have been passing over the region each day, aviation industry experts say.
Ukrainian officials had closed airspace below 32,000 feet, an altitude just below that at which the Malaysian jet was flying.
Mark Duell, vice president of operations at the flight tracking website FlightAware.com, said that flights from carriers that include Transaero Airlines, Emirates Airlines and Singapore Airlines have traveled over the region.
“We haven’t found an airline that’s been avoiding it previous to today,” he said. “Of course now that’s changed.”
President Obama said the U.S. government was offering “any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why.”
Obama learned of the plane’s downing while speaking on the phone with Putin on Thursday morning. Putin had requested the call with Obama to discuss the latest round of economic sanctions imposed by Washington and other Western governments.
News of the plane crash began to break while the two leaders spoke, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said later, and Putin mentioned the reports to Obama during the call.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak issued a statement lamenting the “terrible and deeply shocking news” of the second loss of a Malaysia Airlines 777 this year.
On March 8, Flight 370 bound for Beijing went missing, setting off a global search that has riveted international attention. No trace of the flight has been located despite the costliest lost-aircraft search in history.
Malaysia Airlines did not immediately release the full passenger manifest. But Malaysian news websites quoted the airline as saying 154 Dutch nationals were on board as well as 43 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos and a Canadian. It was unclear whether any Americans were among the estimated 41 passengers whose nationalities had not yet been determined. The airline initially reported 295 on board, which apparently did not include three infants traveling without separate seats.
Loiko reported from Moscow and Williams from Los Angeles. Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan in Los Angeles, Julie Makinen in Beijing and David S. Cloud and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.