A Malaysia Airlines flight en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam with 298 people aboard crashed Thursday in Ukraine near the Russian border after being hit by a surface-to-air missile.
Malaysia Airlines confirmed on its Facebook page that Ukrainian air traffic control lost contact with Flight MH17 about 30 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border. The airline said the plane was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew. All are believed to have been killed.
U.S. intelligence officials confirmed that the flight had been downed by a missile, but were not in agreement as to its origin.
Victims were strewn up to 10 miles away from the crash site. Their nationalities were not immediately available, but Reuters reported 23 were U.S. citizens. German broadcaster RTL reported that 71 Dutch nationals were aboard. Nine British nationals and four French were also on the flight.
Malaysia Airlines has lost contact of MH17 from Amsterdam. The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow.
Malaysia Airlines (@MAS) July 17, 2014
The crash occurred about two hours after leaving Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. local time. It s second involving a Malaysia Air Boeing 777 this year. On March 8, Flight 370 disappeared with 239 passengers and crew aboard on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bejiing. Despite one of the most extensive searches in flight history, Flight 370 has yet to be found.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the incident a terrorist act and ordered an investigation. Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists and Russia all denied responsibility. But Ukrainian officials blamed Russian separatists controlling eastern Ukraine, saying they had intercepted a telephone call in which a separatist leader admitted to the shootdown, thinking the aircraft was Ukrainian.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine s Interior Ministry, said on Facebook that Flight MH17 was at an altitude of 33,000 feet when it was hit by a missile fired from a BUK launcher.
The BUK is a anti-aircraft system, typically mounted on a vehicle. It can simultaneously track and strike six targets flying different directions and altitudes, according to military think tank Globalsecurity.org.
A similar launcher was seen by AP journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin brought up a downed passenger jet in a phone call with President Obama Thursday morning, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Earnest said Obama has directed his team to be in close touch with senior Ukrainian officials on this matter.
In brief remarks before a public address in Wilmington, Del., Obama called the the incident a terrible tragedy. He said the administration was trying to determine whether any Americans were on board.
It was not immediately clear who would have been in control of a BUK anti-aircraft system in the restive area where Ukrainian forces are battling ethnic Russian separatists.
A separatist leader in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, denied that rebel forces had the capability to shoot down a plane at such an altitude.
Alexander Boroday, chairman of the Council of Ministers of the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk, called the incident a provocation by the Ukrainian military, the Russian Interfax news agency reported.
Self-defense forces have no air-defense, which could target transport aircraft at that height, he told Interfax.
Russia s military also says none of its military planes have been flying close to the Russia-Ukraine border Thursday, RIA Novosti reported citing an unidentified military official.
The crash occurred in a region where separatists have shot down Ukrainian aircraft at higher and higher altitudes in recent days, says Damon Wilson, a Russia and Ukraine expert in the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
On Wednesday, a Russian military plane allegedly shot down a Ukrainian jet fighter over Ukrainian territory, forcing the pilot to eject, according to the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council.
The pilot of the Su-25 assault aircraft was not injured and was rescued by Ukrainian military units.
Pro-Russia rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, but added the pilot was unscathed and managed to land his plane safely.
There have been Ukrainian helicopters and aircraft operating under the assumption of limited separatist capabilities, Wilson said. They ve learned quite rudely that the separatists have more advanced weapons.
Separatists have used a version of Russia s Grad rocket that the Russian military only started using in January, Wilson said, citing sources in U.S. government circles.
This is not older, former equipment but among the most recent Russian equipment used in the Russian military, Wilson said, who is now deputy executive vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
Contributing: Oren Dorell in McLean, Va.; Associated Press