HRABOVE, UKRAINE: A Malaysia Airlines passenger plane carrying 298 people was shot down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, and both the government and the pro-Russia separatists fighting in the region denied responsibility.
As plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village of Hrabove, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the wreckage site 25 miles from the Russian border.
A Russian news report said pro-Russia rebels intend to call a three-day cease-fire to allow for an investigation into the crash and recovery efforts.
The Boeing 777-200ER plane, traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, 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.
Bloomberg News reported that a Russian-made mobile air-defense missile appeared to have struck the jetliner.
Evidence indicated the plane was hit by a weapons system known as the SA-11 or Buk, according to four officials who asked for anonymity because of the continuing investigation. The surface-to-air missiles, widely deployed in Eastern Europe, are mounted on vehicles that resemble tanks.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it an act of terrorism and asked for an international investigation.
President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and talked about it in a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Britain has asked for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Ukraine.
The village of Hrabove is currently under the control of pro-Russia separatists and the area has seen severe fighting in recent days.
The RIA-Novosti agency on Thursday quoted rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying international organizations would be allowed into the conflict-plagued region.
Aviation authorities in several countries, including the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to Thursday’s incident. Within hours, several airlines, including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM, released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.
Malaysia Airlines said Ukrainian aviation authorities told the company they had lost contact with Flight MH17 at 10 a.m. (Eastern United States time) about 20 miles from Tamak waypoint, which is 30 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border.
It said the plane was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members. It left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. and was due at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. Friday.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 72,000 feet. Ukraine’s government did not explain how it knew those details.
Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.
He said Russia had supplied separatist rebels with military hardware, but he had seen no evidence “of the transfer of that type of system from Russia.” The weapons that the rebels are known to have do not have the capacity to reach beyond 14,750 feet.
A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
The Malaysia Airlines plane was delivered to the company on July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets. It has more than 43,000 hours of flight time and 6,950 takeoffs and landings.
The Kremlin said Putin “informed the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory” without giving further details about their call. The White House confirmed the call.
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told the Associated Press that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down, but gave no explanation or proof for his statement.
Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, they had no fighters capable of operating it.
It was the second time that a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been attending a European Union summit in Brussels, headed back to the Netherlands to deal with fallout from the crash.
In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of those onboard the Malaysian airliner came to the international airport.
A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming to visit family in Kuala Lumpur for the first time in five years.
There have been several disputes over planes being shot down over eastern Ukraine in recent days.
On Wednesday evening, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday, adding to what Kiev says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatist insurgents. Ukraine Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said the pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet hit by the air-to-air missile was forced to bail out after his jet was shot down.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that Russia did not shoot down the Ukrainian fighter jet on Wednesday.
Pro-Russia rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, but added the pilot was unscathed and managed to land his plane safely.
Moscow denies Western charges that Russia is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest.
Many airlines had continued to use the route despite warnings because of the fighting, said Norman Shanks, former head of group security at airports group BAA.