A Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, MH-17, has been shot down in eastern Ukraine en route to Kuala Lumpur with 295 people on board. The victims included 154 Dutch passengers, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians, 11 Indonesians, six UK citizens, four Germans, four Belgians, and three passengers from the Philippines, along with a 15-person Malaysian crew. Some 47 passengers remain unidentified, with some reports suggesting that 23 US citizens are among that number.
The Wall Street Journal reports that US intelligence officials confirmed that a surface-to-air missile downed the plane, but they are unsure of where it was launched. The Russian news agency Interfax first reported that the flight was shot down by a missile, citing an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, Anton Gerashchenko. On his Facebook page, Geraschenko blames separatists using a ”Buk” anti-aircraft missile system obtained from Russia.
Separatist officials in the region denied having anything to do with the crash, saying they didn’t have the ability to hit a plane at the height the Malaysian Airlines jet was flying.
The airspace over Ukraine is contested as the government battles pro-Russian separatist militias there, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Ukraine today accused Russia of downing a military jet with a missile in the same region. Commercial airliners now appear to be diverting away from the area:
Aviation authorities knew this was a dangerous area prior to today’s crash. The US Federal Aviation Administration nearly three months ago had prohibited US pilots and and airlines from flying over parts of Ukraine.
With geopolitical tensions already high in the region, any sign of Ukrainian, Russian or separatist involvement in the downing of an airliner could lead to a serious escalation. Ukraine’s government, already accusing the insurgents of causing the crash, will seek to tar Russia as a disruptive force in the region, rallying international pressure to its side. Russia, on the other hand, can be expected to make the case that the tragedy is a clear sign that Ukraine’s government cannot control its own airspace, as it has after past accusations. In 2001, Ukrainian’s military accidentally shot down a Russian passenger jet over the Black Sea.
The situation is reminiscent of Cold War tensions that led to the downing of Korean Airline Flight 007 by a Russian missile in 1983 while it flew from Seoul to New York City. The Soviet Union denied that it was involved in the attack, which occurred within Russian airspace, but later admitted culpability. There are also similarities to when a US navy ship shot down Iran Air 655 in 1988 while patrolling the Persian Gulf at a time of similar tension, mistakenly believing the aircraft was a threat.
The crash also marks another tragedy for Malaysian Airlines, which infamously lost track of another jet, MH-370, that disappeared somewhere over the South Pacific in March. There is still no official explanation for its disappearance, though the search for the plane and its passengers continues.
Here’s Malaysian prime minister Mohd Najib Tun Razak’s statement on Twitter:
Russian president Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to Razak in a tweet:
These journalists appear to have arrived at the location of the crash: