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Malaysian Airliner Crashes in Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry personnel work at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 crash near the village of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.

Russian media reports say a Malaysian airliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed in eastern Ukraine.

Malaysia Airlines reported on Twitter that it lost contact of a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Ukrainian airspace Thursday. The plane was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members.

A Ukrainian interior ministry official, Anton Gerashchenko, said the airliner was hit by a ground-to-air missile.

A general view shows the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.

In a posting on his Facebook page, Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said the plane was flying at 10,000 meters when it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher.

The Buk is a sophisticated, medium-range, Russian-designed surface-to-air missile systems that can fire missiles up to 72,000 feet.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statment on the presidential website that he does not rule out that the airliner was shot down but stressed that the Ukrainian military was not involved.

"We do not rule out that this plane has been shot down but emphasize that the Armed Forces of Ukraine were not engaged in any activity involving hitting targets in the air," the statement said.

Poroshenko also expressed his condolences to the families and loved ones of those affected by what he described as “this terrible tragedy".

Washington in touch with Ukraine

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. officials have been in touch with Ukrainian officials about the reports, but declined to elaborate.

A Pentagon spokesman told reporters that U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been briefed about the Malaysian Airlines crash but 'cannot confirm details'.

Crash location

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted "a source in aviation circles" as saying the plane crashed near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is located near the border with Russia and has seen heavy fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists. An airstrike there earlier this week killed 11 people. It is unclear who carried out that attack; the rebels blamed Ukraine's air force.

Malaysia Airlines MH 17 partial flight path from Amsterdam, July 17, 2014

Around the time the first reports of the airliner crash came in Thursday, the separatists claimed they had downed a Ukrainian An-26 miltary transport plane near the town of Torez, which is less then 10 kilomters from Snizhne.

Social media postings on Twitter and the Russian site VKontakte that were attributed to a top leader of the pro-Russian insurgency, Igor Strelkov, claimed that insurgents had shot down an Antonov An-26 heavy engine prop plane at around the same time Thursday that the Malaysian airliner went down. The posting, which also included video showing smoke rising purportedly from the fields outside the village of Torez, was posted at 5:50 p.m. Moscow time, and read:

Tweets from an account purported to belong to Igor Strelkov, leader of the separaists group People's Militia Donbass

"In the vicinity of Torez, an An-26 was just shot down, falling somewhere in the vicinity of the Progress coal mine. We warned them about this: Don't fly over 'our skies.' And here is video confirmation of the latest 'bird strike.' The bird fell near the slagheap, the residential district was struck. No civilians suffered. There's also information about a second downed plane, apparently an Su (Sukhoi)."

There was no immediate way to authenticate the video or the postings, although the claims appeared to match up with initial reports about when and where the Malaysian airliner went down.

The posting was later removed from the VKontakte page.

A later posting on both the same VKontatke page and the Twitter feed linked to Strelkov quoted a top official with the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, as confirming that a passenger jet had crashed neared Torez, but denied involvement. The post instead instead suggested Ukrainian forces were responsible.

Borodai said via Twitter that the rebels do not have weapons capable of hitting an airliner flying 10,000 meters up. Ukraine's government denied its armed forces were involved.

Bodies discovered

Dozens of bodies were scattered around the smouldering wreckage of the passenger jet that crashed, a Reuters reporter said.

An emergency services rescue worker said at least 100 bodies had so far been found at the scene, near the village of Grabovo, and that debris from the wreckage was spread across an area up to about 15 km (nine miles) in diameter.

Broken pieces of the wings were marked with blue and red paint - the same colours as the emblem of the Malaysian airline which lost track of a Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was carrying almost 300 people.

"I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang and shots. Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke," said a witness, who gave his name only as Vladimir.

A separatist rebel from nearby Krasnyi Luch who gave his name only as Sergei said: "From my balcony I saw a plane begin to descend from a great height and then heard two explosions.

He denied the rebels had shot the plane down. "This could happen only if it was a fighter jet or a surface-to-air missile (that shot it down)," he told Reuters, saying the rebels did not have weapons capable of shooting shoot down a plane at such a height.

Malaysia launches investigation

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was shocked by the reports and that he was launching an immediate investigation into the crash.

But the country's Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said there is "no confirmation" the flight was shot down.

The incident comes after a Malaysia Airlines plane went
mising on March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with
239 passengers and crew on board. It has not been found.

Plane downed Monday

On Monday, a Ukrainian military An-26 was downed in eastern Ukraine's Luhansk region.

Pro-Russian separatists claimed responsibility for hitting a Ukrainian Su-25 flying over eastern Ukraine with a missile earlier Wednesday. The pilot of that plane managed to bring it down safely. Also Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said a missile fired by a Russian warplane hit and brought down a Ukrainian Su-25 flying over eastern Ukraine, but that the pilot safely ejected.

Mike Eckel and Jurij Hiltajczuk contributed to this report from Washington, Mary Alice Salinas contributed to this report from the White House, Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon. Some information provided by Reuters.