Both sides in Ukraine deny shooting down plane

Last Updated Jul 17, 2014 7:50 PM EDT

GRABOVO, Ukraine -- A passenger plane carrying 298 people was shot down Thursday as it flew over the country, a Ukrainian official said. Both the government and the pro-Russia separatists who have been fighting in the region denied any responsibility for downing the plane.

Plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village of Hrabove in eastern Ukraine. Onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were 283 passengers and 15 crew.

U.S. military intelligence strongly suspects a surface-to-air missile brought down the jetliner, CBS News reports.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Poroshenko and offered U.S. assistance to help determine what happened and why, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.

The village is under the control of pro-Russia separatists and the area has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days. A Russian news report said pro-Russia rebels intend to call a three-day cease-fire to allow for an investigation into the crash and recovery efforts.

Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet. He said it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher, which can fire missiles up to an altitude of 72,000 feet.

A rebel leader, Donetsk Prime Minister Alexander Borodai, told Kommersant FM radio that the rebels don't have the Buk system and said that the Ukrainians brought down the plane.

The Malaysia Airlines plane is a Boeing 777-200ER, which was delivered to Malaysia Airlines July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets, which sells and tracks information about aircraft. It has more than 43,000 hours of flight time and 6,950 takeoffs and landings.

Poroshenko said his country's armed forces didn't shoot at any airborne targets.

"We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets," he said. "We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible."

Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told The Associated Press that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down but gave no explanation or proof for his statement.

Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, there had no fighters capable of operating it.

A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.

It was the second time that a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said on Twitter there's no confirmation that Thursday's plane was shot down. He said he has instructed the country's military to check.

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

A spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council said earlier Thursday that an air force fighter jet had been struck and shot down by a missile fired from a Russian plane. Spokesman Andrei Lysenko said in a televised briefing that the pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet was forced to bail from his craft after it was shot down Wednesday evening.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that Russia did not shoot down the Ukrainian fighter jet on Wednesday. "We didn't do it," Churkin said.

On Monday, Ukrainian officials said one of their military transport planes was hit by a rocket and downed in the same area.

Rebels in conflict-wracked eastern Ukraine immediately claimed responsibility for downing the Antonov AN-26, but Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said the rocket might have been fired from inside Russia.

Heletey said the plane was flying at an altitude of 21,300 feet, which he said was too high to be reached with the weapons used by the separatists fighting government troops.

No shoulder-fired missile is capable of effectively targeting an aircraft at 30,000 feet, lending credence to the reports that Flight 17 might have been hit by a military air defense type missile like the Buk system.

Other passenger planes have been shot down before including:

  • April 20, 1978: Korean Airlines Flight 902, which diverted from its planned course on a flight from Paris to Seoul and strayed over the Soviet Union. After being fired upon by an interceptor aircraft, the crew made a forced landing at night on the surface of a frozen lake. Two of the 97 passengers were killed by the hostile fire.
  • Sept. 1, 1983: Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down by at least one Soviet air-to-air missile after the 747 had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 240 passengers and 29 crew were killed.
  • July 3, 1988: Iran Air Flight 655 Aircraft was shot down by a surface to air missile from the American naval vessel U.S.S. Vincennes. All 16 crew and 274 passengers were killed.

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