A commercial airliner crashed in the east of Ukraine on Thursday, apparently killing almost three hundred passengers and crew, in what the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko, described as a terrorist attack.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry specifically accused pro-Russian separatists of having shot down the jet.
A correspondent for the Reuters news agency reported seeing burning wreckage and bodies on the ground in a village near Donetsk, one of the cities in eastern Ukraine where rebels have declared a breakaway republic.
The Boeing plane, which was jointly operated by Malaysia Airlines and the Netherlands’ KLM, departed Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport for Kuala Lumpur Thursday evening. More than half the passengers were Dutch. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte broke off meetings in Brussels and spoke with Poroshenko by phone.
According to an Ukrainian official, the airplane also carried 23 Americans but a Malaysia Airlines spokesman made no mention of American passengers during a news conference in Amsterdam late on Thursday.
The jet’s disappearance was first reported by the Russian news agency Interfax. Its website inexplicably went dark for at least an hour Thursday evening. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane in the afternoon as it flew over eastern Ukraine toward the Russian border.
Other Russian media claimed the rebels lacked the equipment to shoot down a commercial airliner or implicated the Ukrainian military. RT, Russia’s international broadcaster, suggested Ukrainian forces might have aimed to shoot down President Vladimir Putin’s jet.
But a reporter for the Associated Press saw a Russian Buk missile launcher — which would be capable of bringing down the plane — in the very area of the crash earlier in the day.
Late last month, Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency reported that rebels had taken over an army unit equipped with Buk missile defense systems. A Twitter account claiming to speak for the “Donetsk People’s Republic” sent out a picture of such a system. It was later removed.
A rebel military commander, a Russian named Igor Strelkov, wrote on his Facebook after the plane came down that his troops had shot an Antonov An-26 transport aircraft out of the sky. Another such plane was shot down by rebels on Monday while an Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet was downed on Wednesday.
Putin, who has publicly supported the uprising in eastern Ukraine, was on the phone with his American counterpart, Barack Obama, when news of the crash reached them.
The leaders were discussing fresh sanctions the Americans had imposed on Russia earlier in the day, targeting banks, defense contractors and energy companies as well as individuals they said were responsible for the continuing support of militants in Ukraine.
Ukrainian army troops mounted an offensive in the restive southeast of Ukraine earlier this month, taking the city of Sloviansk two weeks ago which had been one of the rebellion’s strongholds. Its loss marked a major setback for the insurrection three months into the conflict and a welcome boost for Poroshenko who was elected in May on a promise to put down the uprising.
The rebels oppose centralized rule from Kiev and want Russia to annex parts of the predominantly Russian-speaking region.
Russia has denied Western accusations that it backs the separatists with a view to dismembering the former Soviet republic. But Russian weapons do appear to have found their way into the country while Russia’s proposal to end the crisis — turning Ukraine into a federation to give Russian speakers in the southeast more of a direct say in how they are governed — is considered a ploy to divide the country by the Ukrainians.
In March, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea after its residents, most of whom are of Russian descent, voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia in a referendum.
This article was updated throughout Thursday night.