UKRAINE – A Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed in eastern Ukraine, Russian news agency Interfax reported Thursday.
Authorities said 295 people were on board the plane when it went down; all are presumed dead.
Interfax reported Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashenko said 23 of those are Americans.
However, President Barack Obama said officials are still working to confirm how many U.S. citizens were on board.
The jet is a Boeing 777, according to Interfax.
Malaysia Airlines confirmed that it lost contact with MH17 and the flight’s last known position was over Ukrainian airspace, the airline said on Twitter.
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 when it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described the crash as a “terrorist action.”
“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,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, according to his website.
The Crash Site
The plane reportedly went down near the border between Russia and Ukraine.
“People said the plane kind of exploded in the air, and that everything rained down in bits and pieces, the plane itself, the people inside,” Noah Sneider said, an American freelance journalist who interviewed witnesses at the scene.
Now, charred wreckage stretches for kilometers, he said.
Stunned rescue workers and rebel fighters are combing the area, Sneider said, planting sticks with white cotton ribbons where they find bodies in the fields.
“As you walk through the fields, you see a man with his cracked iPhone sticking out of his pocket. You see sort of people’s clothing everywhere. Most of it’s kind of ripped off by the air. There’s some suitcases and stuff in a pile by the road,” Sneider said.
There are many bodies left to be found, he said, but night is falling and people are trying to figure out what to do next.
Locals in the rural area trying to help were overwhelmed, he said.
Firemen who rushed to put out the flames found they had a hose with holes in it, spraying water everywhere, he said.
“One man said to me, ‘Nothing’s happened in this village for 30 years, and now this,'” Sneider said.
The Flight Route Through Political Tensions
The route taken by the Malaysian flight is a very common one between Kuala Lumpur and the Netherlands, said CNN aviation safety consultant Mary Schiavo.
She noted that the plane was flying over a troubled area and said close communication with air traffic controllers would be a key necessity.
In a hostile or disputed areas, “any alteration from your course and you can have a problem,” she said.
Tensions have been high between Ukraine and Russia since street protests forced former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February.
Russia subsequently annexed Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region and a pro-Russia separatist rebellion has been raging in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions..
Ukrainian forces have been struggling to quell the separatist unrest.
Ukraine’s government has accused Russia of allowing weapons and military equipment, including tanks, to cross the border illegally into the hands of pro-Russia separatists.
The Pentagon said Wednesday that Russia now had 12,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, as well as some heavy weapons.
The troop numbers had fallen to about 1,000 previously from a high of an estimated 40,000 forces earlier this year.
On Thursday, CNN reported that as Ukrainian officials reportedly accused a Russian fighter of shooting down a Ukrainian jet Wednesday as that aircraft flew in Ukrainian airspace.
Tensions are high over that incident, separate from the breaking news Thursday of the Malaysian flight.
On top of that, Thursday’s report of a downed Malaysian flight marks the second time this year that Malaysian Airlines has faced an incident involving a plane.
On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. That plane had 239 people on board.
Searchers have found no trace of 370 or its passengers despite extensive search efforts.
Flight 370 likely flew into the southern Indian Ocean on autopilot with an unresponsive crew, Australian authorities said last month.