Malaysia plane crashed in area of severe recent fighting

Last Updated Jul 17, 2014 7:49 PM EDT

The part of Ukraine where a Malaysia Airlines jetliner went down Thursday has been an area of great conflict between the country's military and pro-Russian separatists.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 carrying 298 people, was flying over eastern Ukraine from Amsterdam when it crashed late Thursday near the border with Russia.

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

The rebel-held village of Hrabove, 25 miles from the Russian border, 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.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash. He insisted that his forces did not shoot down the plane.

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. Ukraine's government didn't say how it knew those details.

Earlier Thursday, a spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council said that an air force fighter jet in eastern Ukraine 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.

The RIA-Novosti agency on Thursday quoted rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying discussions were underway with Ukrainian authorities on calling a short truce for humanitarian reasons. He said international organizations would be allowed into the conflict-plagued region.

Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to Thursday's crash. Within hours, several airlines, including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM, released statements Thursday saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.

Malaysia Airlines said Ukrainian aviation authorities told the company they had lost contact with Flight MH17 at 10 a.m. EDT about 20 miles from Tamak waypoint, which is 30 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border.

It said the plane was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members. It had left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. Friday.

Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.

He said Russia had supplied separatist rebels with military hardware, but he had seen no evidence "of the transfer of that type of system from Russia." The weapons that the rebels are known to have do not have the capacity to reach beyond 14,750 feet.

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.