The Battle for Ukraine
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|Susan St. Claire||July 17th 2014|
A Malaysian Airlines jetliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed Thursday in eastern Ukraine, and Ukrainian government officials said pro-Russian insurgents had shot down the plane.
The Boeing 777, carrying 295 people, went down in a rural part of the Donetsk region, not far from the Russian border, where the Russian-backed fighters have battled Ukraine governement troops in what increasingly resembles all-out war.
Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that the plane had 280 passengers and 15 crew members and lost contact with Ukrainian air-traffic control at around 2:15 p.m. UTC. Anton Gerashchenko, a top aide to Ukraine's interior minister, said the airliner was hit by a surface-to-air missile.
In a posting on his Facebook page, Gerashenko said the plane was flying at 33,000 feet when it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher. The Buk is a sophisticated, medium-range, Russian-designed surface-to-air system that can fire missiles up to 72,000 feet. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he didn't rule out that the airliner was shot down.
"We do not rule out that this plane has been shot down but emphasize that the Armed Forces of Ukraine were not engaged in any activity involving hitting targets in the air," he said in a statement posted on the presidential website. In a statement posted later to Twitter, Poroshenko wrote: "This is not an incident, not a disaster, but a terrorist attack."
News reports said the plane crashed near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, near the border with Russia, which has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks. An airstrike there earlier this week killed 11 people. There was no claim of responsibility for that attack, though the rebels blamed Ukraine's air force.
On Thursday, around the time of the reported crash, separatists claimed they had downed a An-26 miltary transport plane near the town of Torez, which is less then 6 miles from Snizhne.
Social media postings on Twitter and the Russian site VKontakte that were attributed to Igor Strelkov, a Russian citizen who is a top insurgent leader, claimed that insurgents had shot down the An-26 at around the same time that the Malaysian airliner went down.
The VKontakte posting, which also included video showing smoke rising purportedly from the fields outside the village of Torez, was posted at 5:50 p.m. Moscow time, and read:
"In the vicinity of Torez, an An-26 was just shot down, falling somewhere in the vicinity of the Progress coal mine. We warned them about this: Don't fly over 'our skies.' And here is video confirmation of the latest 'bird strike.' The bird fell near the slagheap, the residential district was not struck. No civilians suffered. There's also information about a second downed plane, apparently a (Sukhoi)."
There was no immediate way to authenticate the video or the postings, although the claims appeared to match up with initial reports about when and where the Malaysian airliner went down. The posting was later removed from the VKontakte page.
A later posting on both the same VKontatke page and the Twitter feed linked to Strelkov quoted a top official with the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic as confirming that a passenger jet had crashed neared Torez. The post, attributed to Alexander Borodai, denied rebel involvement, instead suggesting that Ukrainian forces were responsible.
Borodai said via Twitter that the rebels do not have weapons capable of hitting an airliner flying at 33,000 feet. Russian media reports published June 29, however, quoted insurgent officials as having seized a Ukrainian anti-aircraft base where Buk missile systems were based.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. officials have been in touch with Ukrainian officials about the reports, but declined to elaborate. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, called the crash a terrible tragedy.
“Right now we’re working to determine whether there were any American citizens on board. That is our first priority and I’ve directed my national security team to stay in close contact with the Ukrainian government . The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why," President Obama said during a speech in Delaware. And as a country our thoughts and prayers are with all the families and passengers wherever they call home.”