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A Malaysian airliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board was shot down in a missile attack, US and Ukrainian officials said on Thursday.
Malaysia Airlines said it lost contact with Flight MH17, a Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, while it was over an area of eastern Ukraine contested by pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces.
Washington believes the jet was hit by a missile fired from the ground, a senior official said. The US authorities have not been able to conclude yet where the missile was fired from, but the crash prompted allegations that the jet was shot down by pro-Russian separatists.
Early casualty figures from the airline suggested at least 154 Dutch, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians, 11 Indonesians and six Britons had died, as well as other nationalities. Huib Gorter, European head of Malaysia Airlines, said at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam that the nationalities of 47 people remained unknown. Later the airline said three infants were among the casualties.
Some of the passengers on the flights were en route to Melbourne to attend an international Aids conference, according to an International Aids Society statement and a tweet from Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS.
The crash came hours after the US and EU toughened economic sanctions against Russia over its alleged support for the rebels, targeting four of the country’s biggest companies. Russian shares and the rouble dropped sharply in the wake of the latest penalties.
The plane crashed near the town of Torez, east of Donetsk, the stronghold of the pro-Russian separatists whose four-month fight with the Ukrainian military has sparked Europe’s worst security crisis since the end of the Cold War.
If it is confirmed that the plane was shot down, tensions between the west and Russia are likely to reach new levels. The crash could lead to new sanctions on Russia and intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine between separatists and the government.
In a statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sent condolences to the Malaysian president, appeared to blame Ukraine for the crash. “This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine.”
Airlines will face questions over why passenger flights were still permitted to fly over the region after Ukraine claimed two of its military planes were downed in recent days by missiles fired from Russian territory.
For Malaysia Airlines, the crash is the second catastrophe within months. Malaysia flight MH370 bound for Beijing disappeared in March with 227 passengers and 12 crew in one of the biggest mysteries in commercial aviation history.