A Malaysia Airlines (MAS) jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, in an attack that the government in Kiev blamed on pro-Russian rebels. The separatists denied the accusation.
Ukraine’s state security service said it intercepted phone conversations among militants discussing the missile strike, which knocked Flight 17 from the sky about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border. U.S. officials said the weapon probably was a Russian-made model used widely in Eastern Europe.
The Boeing Co. 777 crashed en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam in the main battleground of Ukraine’s civil war, threatening to escalate tensions in Europe’s worst geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War. A European air-traffic control agency routed planes away from the region, which sits astride some of the busiest routes to and from Asia.
President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly denied Russian involvement in the fighting, said Ukraine’s government bore responsibility because the crash wouldn’t have occurred without the current strife. He said he also directed Russian military and civilian authorities to “investigate this crime,” according to a transcript of his remarks to Cabinet ministers.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to offer condolences and “immediate assistance to support a prompt international investigation,” according to a White House statement. The United Nations Security Council is holding an emergency meeting on the incident later today.
If, as now seems certain, it’s been brought down by a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile, Russia bears a heavy share of responsibility" -- Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott
While the Obama administration didn’t publicly speculate about the details of the shoot-down, one U.S. ally, Australia, said Russian support for Ukrainian separatists puts Putin’s government in line for some of the blame for the incident.
“They are Russian proxies, essentially,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in an interview with 3AW radio. “If, as now seems certain, it’s been brought down by a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile, Russia bears a heavy share of responsibility.”
Flight 17 carried 283 passengers and 15 crew members, with 154 Dutch travelers making up the biggest national group, according to a tally by Malaysia Airlines. It was the second tragedy to befall the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. unit since March, when Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people on board.
Russia’s ruble tumbled 1.2 percent to 40.2691 against the central bank’s target basket of dollars and euros, the most on a closing basis since March 3. The Micex index of 50 Russian stocks slid 2.3 percent to 1,440.63, the lowest since May 30.
Flight 17 was at about 33,000 feet (10 kilometers) when it was struck, putting it at an altitude cleared for commercial traffic, according to navigation agency Eurocontrol. Airspace in the region had been restricted from the ground up to 32,000 feet, and airlines are now being denied permission to fly over eastern Ukraine, Eurocontrol said.
“The routes will remain closed until further notice,” the Brussels-based agency said in a statement.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies said that while they’re still investigating, it increasingly appears that Flight 17 was downed by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile known by its NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly.
There is a growing belief that Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine or Russia may have mistaken the jet for a Ukrainian military transport, said two Pentagon officials who asked not to identified because the details are private. Some rebels are Russian or Ukrainian military veterans who may have been trained on the Gadfly, a U.S. intelligence official said.
The Gadfly missile, known locally as the BUK-M, is a radar-guided weapon that can find a target at a range of 140 miles and reach altitudes as high about 72,000 feet, according to the army technology.com website.
“The separatists could have only gotten that capability from Russia,” U.S. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said when asked what the ramifications would be if pro-Russian forces shot down the jetliner. “Therefore the culpable party here is Vladimir Putin.”
Ukraine has more proof beyond the telephone intercepts of rebels’ involvement, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, acting chairman of the state security service, said in Kiev, without immediately giving details.
Insurgent leader Andrei Purgin denied the rebels were behind the attack, telling Bloomberg by phone that the Ukrainian army had shot down the plane by mistake and that the separatists didn’t have a weapon that could reach that altitude.
The disaster spurred an outpouring of sympathy in Kiev, as a crowd of about 1,000 people flocked to the Netherlands Embassy to bring flowers and toys, Ukraine’s Channel 5 television reported.
Malaysia isn’t yet able to verify why the plane went down, and there was no distress call, Prime Minister Najib said at the Kuala Lumpur airport, where the Flight 370 mystery began four months ago after that plane took off for Beijing and vanished without a trace.
Flight 17’s lack of an emergency signal wasn’t surprising. A surface-to-air missile as powerful as the Gadfly, which is intended to knock down military aircraft, would have delivered a devastating blow to a civilian jet with a pressurized cabin in the thin air above 30,000 feet.
Besides the Dutch passengers, Flight 17 carried 45 Malaysians -- including the entire crew -- and 12 Indonesians, according to an e-mailed statement from Malaysian Air. Other nations represented on the manifest included Australia, the U.K., Germany, Belgium and Canada.
The incident occurred just days after the U.S. said pro-Russian rebels are getting weapons from Russia and tightened sanctions against the country. After Russia annexed Crimea earlier this year, the U.S. accused the country of trying to foment unrest in Ukraine’s eastern regions, a claim that Putin rejects.
A White House official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said that over the past month, the flow of heavy weapons from Russia and support for Russian separatists has increased. The training and tactics of rebels in eastern Ukraine has also grown more sophisticated, the official said.
Ukraine has already lost multiple aircraft to the rebels. Earlier this week, the government said an An-26 transport plane was hit by a “powerful weapon” not previously used by the separatists, probably from inside Russia.
The insurgents want to become part of Russia and have appealed to Putin to send military assistance. Putin has refused, and last month asked lawmakers in Moscow to rescind the authorization they gave him March 1 to use force in Ukraine.