x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Emirates stops Kiev flights amid fears Malaysia plane was shot

Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels accuse each other of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane that was carrying 295 people.

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. The Malaysian airliner MH17 crashed over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 295 people aboard, a Ukrainian interior ministry official said. Maxim Zmeyev/Rueters
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. The Malaysian airliner MH17 crashed over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 295 people aboard, a Ukrainian interior ministry official said. Maxim Zmeyev/Rueters

KIEV // A Malaysian Airlines jet with 295 people on board crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, with Kiev and separatists rebels in the region accusing each other of shooting downing the aircraft.

There were no reports of any survivors.

The Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko believes pro-Russian insurgents shot down the jet, and views it as a “terrorist act”, his official spokesman said.

“Poroshenko on the downed plane: this incident is not a catastrophe. It is a terrorist act,” Svyatoslav Tsegolko posted on his official Twitter account.

A Ukraine-bound Emirates Airline flight turned back to Dubai after news of the crash broke and the airline said it had suspended all flights to Kiev.

The US president Barack Obama described the crash as a “terrible tragedy” and said the US was seeking to learn “what happened and why.”.

“Right now we are working to determine if there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority,” he said.

Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said there were 23 American citizens aboard the flight. France confirmed that four of its nationals were on the flight.

The head of Ukraine’s airspace regulatory body said the aircraft was flying normally before it disappeared from radar screens at 14.15GMT and “there had been no word of any problems from the crew”.

Mr Gerashenko said the plane had been hit by a ground-to-air Buk missile, but the pro-Russian rebels claimed the airliner, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, had been shot down by a Ukrainian jet.

“Witnesses watching the flight of the Boeing 777 passenger plane saw it being attacked by a battle plane of the Ukrainian forces,” the government of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic said.

“After that the passenger plane split in two in the air and fell on the territory” of the adjoining self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, it said, adding that the Ukrainian jet was shot down afterwards.

A rescue worker said at least 100 bodies had been found at the crash site, near the village of Grabovo, and that debris from the wreckage was spread across an area about 15 kilometres in diameter.

Broken pieces of the wings were marked with blue and red paint – the colours of the Malaysian Airlines livery.

“I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang and shots. Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke,” said a witness, who gave his name only as Vladimir.

A separatist rebel from nearby Krasnyi Luch who gave his name only as Sergei said: “From my balcony I saw a plane begin to descend from a great height and then heard two explosions.”

He also denied that rebels had shot the plane down.

However, comments posted on a social media site attributed to rebel military commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic suggest the separatists had shot the aircraft by mistake, believing it was a large Ukrainian army transport plane.

“We just downed an An-26 near Torez. It is down near the Progress mine,” said the VK page attributed to Igor Strelkov, which is frequently quoted by Ukrainian media.

The rebels shot down another An-26 in rebel-held eastern Ukraine on June 14, killing 49 government servicemen.

“We had warned [the Ukrainian armed forces] not to fly in ‘our sky’,” the commander says in the post. “And here is a video confirming that a ‘bird fell’.”

The website then provides a link that is identical to that published by Ukrainian media in reports about the Malaysia Airlines jet.

The crash came a day after the United States and the European Union imposed fresh sanctions on Russia for supporting the Ukrainian rebels, which Moscow denies.

There have been disputes over planes being shot down earlier in the region.

Ukrainian authorities said on Thursday that a fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane on Wednesday evening, adding to what Kiev says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatists.

The rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes on Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets. The Ukrainian defence 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

Ukraine said a military transport plane was shot down on Monday by a missile fired from Russian territory.

In Malaysian, prime minister Najib Razak said he was shocked by reports of the Malaysian Airlines crash and that an investigation was being launched immediately.

The airline is still reeling from the disappearance of flight MH370, which diverted from its course en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 and has still not been traced.

* Associated Presse, Agence France-Presse and Reuters