A Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 298 people has crashed in rebel-held eastern Ukraine in an apparent shooting down. Responsibility has been denied by rebels and Ukraine's Kyiv-based government.
Among the passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which crashed on Thursday, were 154 Dutch, 27 Australian and four German nationals. An international disaster assistance team is reportedly on its way to Kyiv, as are investigators from the OSCE.
Malaysia Airlines said that it lost contact with Flight MH17 at 1415 UTC, about 50 kilometers inside Ukraine's border with Russia. It had been cruising at an altitude of about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Wreckage over wide area
Wreckage bearing red and blue Malaysia insignia and dozens of bodies was scattered over an area of many kilometers in fields near the village of Grabovo, near the rebel-held eastern industrial city of Donetsk.
Journalists were quick to report gruesome details from the scene.
The black box has reportedly been retrieved by separatist rebels. There have been calls for an international investigation.
There is speculation that the plane was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile which may have been fired from a Russian-made "Buk" system.
The separatists ahad recently admitted being in possession of such a radar-guided missile system which can be mounted on a truck and can reach aircraft flying at over 10,000 kilometers.
Ukraine's security services produced what they said were intercepted telephone conversations between rebel commander Igor Bezler and a Russian military intelligence officer, as well as rebel fighters at the scene, saying that rebel forces shot down a plane.
The separatists denied any responsibility for the downing of the plane.
But Igor Strelkov, a pro-Russian rebel leader had earlier boasted of having shot down a Ukrainian cargo plane at the same location the Malaysian airliner went down, fueling suspicion that the Malaysia aircraft may have been shot down by accident.
In the aftermath of the incident, separatist rebel authorities said they were ready to agree to a two- to three-day truce in eastern Ukraine to allow for recovery work at the site of the crash.
Putin offers condolences
News of the crash emerged as US President Barack Obama was discussing a new round of Western economic sanctions on Russia during a telephone call with President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin said Putin had asked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to convey his "deep condolences" to victims' families.
Russia's Emergencies Ministry said it had asked Kyiv for permission to carry out "joint work" at the crash site, according to Russia's RIA news agency.
Obama, speaking in the US state of Delaware, said Thursday's incident was a "terrible tragedy," adding that his prayers with the victims, regardless of where they were from.
Earlier this week, Kyiv said one of Ukraine's military transport planes was shot down on Monday by a missile fired from Russian territory. It also blamed Russia for the downing of a fighter on Wednesday. Moscow denied involvement.
European and US stock markets tumbled on news of Thursday's crash, which raised tensions already fueled by broadened US and EU sanctions.
If proven, aviation's 4th such case
If Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down it would be the fourth commercial airliner in aviation history to endure such a fate.
Previous cases included Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down by a Soviet missile in 1983 and Iran Air Flight 655 shot down by a missile from a US naval vessel in 1988.
Air France said Thursday it had "taken the decision to no longer fly over eastern Ukraine. The German flag carrier Lufthansa said it would make a "wide detour" around the area.
Malaysia Airline's second recent disaster
For Malaysia Airlines, Thursday's crash was its second disaster in less than five months.
On March 8, another Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 239 people on board went missing during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing after veering toward the Indian Ocean.
Despite a massive search off western Australia, no trace of that plane has yet been found.
ipj/rg(AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)