KIEV, Ukraine – A Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed in rebel-held east Ukraine, regional officials said Thursday, as Ukraine’s president said the jet may have been shot down.
Malaysia Airlines said it had “lost contact” with flight MH17, which Ukrainian officials said came down near the town of Shaktarsk, in the Donetsk region.
Regional officials said the number of dead was “not yet known” but Russian news agency Itar-Tass cited an unnamed source at Ukraine’s aviation authority as saying there were no survivors.
Eyewitnesses quoted by Russian news agency RIA Novosti spoke of dozens of bodies at the crash site.
Interfax also quoted the deputy prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Andrei Purgin, as saying a group of rebels had arrived at scene and found “many dead.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the jet may have been shot down.
“We do not exclude that the plane was shot down and confirm that the Ukraine Armed Forces did not fire at any targets in the sky,” Poroshenko said in a statement.
The Boeing 777 aircraft was expected in the Malaysian capital at around 6 a.m. on Friday (2200 GMT Thursday), Malaysia Airlines said.
Still reeling from the disappearance of flight MH370, Malaysia announced on Twitter the loss of the airliner.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on his Twitter feed he was “shocked by reports that an MH plane crashed.”
“We are launching an immediate investigation.”
Ukraine’s Poroshenko expressed his “deepest and sincerest sympathies for the families and loved ones of those killed” and vowed that “those behind this tragedy will be brought to justice.”
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama had discussed the shocking new development in crisis-torn Ukraine where fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the Western-backed government has claimed over 600 lives.
U.S. stocks fell sharply following reports the plane had been shot down, while Britain’s Foreign Office said it was “working urgently to find out what’s happened.”
The incident comes just months after Malaysia’s Flight MH370 disappeared on March 8 with 239 on board. The plane diverted from its Kuala Lumpur to Beijing flight path and its fate remains a mystery despite a massive aerial and underwater search.
Ukrainian jet ‘downed’
The crash came with tensions already soaring after Kiev accused Russia of downing a Ukrainian military plane on a mission over the east of the country.
That allegation came a day after the U.S. and EU bolstered sanctions against Russia over its perceived support of the separatist insurgency in the ex-Soviet state.
Moscow condemned the punitive measures as “blackmail” and warned of retaliatory actions against Washington.
In the first direct claim of a Russian attack on Ukrainian forces, Kiev said a Russian airforce jet shot down a Ukrainian warplane Wednesday evening — before the fresh round of Western sanctions were announced — as it was carrying out its duties.
The pilot of the Su-25 plane managed to eject and was rescued by Kiev forces, Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council said.
Russia’s defence ministry — which NATO claims has massed some 12,000 troops along Ukraine’s porous border — dismissed the claim as “absurd”, Russian news agencies reported.
The dramatic developments on the ground came alongside a major diplomatic fallout over fresh Western sanctions that Washington and Brussels hope will force Moscow to help halt the conflict.
Obama took a swipe at major players in Russia’s finance, military and energy sectors in the new sanctions despite a warning from Putin that the measures would inflict “very serious damage” on the already tattered US-Russia relationship.
In eastern Ukraine fierce fighting between government forces and pro-Moscow rebels has intensified in recent days with some 55 civilians killed since the weekend.
The fighting forced more than a dozen Ukrainian border guards to flee into Russia seeking medical help with one dying from his injuries, the Russian authorities said.
Germany and France have been spearheading a push to revive talks between Kiev and the rebels over a potential ceasefire but attempts to hold a Skype videoconference fell through Tuesday.
Ukrainian forces made a string of major gains after Poroshenko tore up an unsuccessful ceasefire earlier this month, but progress has slowed since rebels retreated into two major regional centres where they have pledged to fight to the end.