Malaysia PM Najib: Deep shock over Ukraine plane crash

Both the Ukrainian government and rebels have denied downing the plane

Malaysia's leader has called the Malaysia Airlines plane crash in eastern Ukraine "deeply shocking".

Describing the disaster as a "tragic day" in a "tragic year" for Malaysia, Najib Razak said the investigation "must not be hindered in any way".

The plane, carrying 298 people, crashed in rebel-held territory near the Russian border.

Both sides in Ukraine's civil conflict have accused the other of shooting it down with a missile.

The Boeing 777, with the call sign MH17, was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

It is the second disaster suffered by Malaysia Airlines this year. Flight MH370 disappeared en route from Malaysia to China in March and has still not been found.

In a statement, Malaysia Airlines said MH17 was carrying at least 154 Dutch nationals, 27 Australians, 43 Malaysians (including 15 crew), 12 Indonesians and nine Britons.

Other passengers came from Germany, Belgium, the Philippines and Canada, with the nationalities of 41 people not yet confirmed.

People inspect the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, on 17 July 2014 The plane came down near the village of Grabovo in Ukraine on Thursday
A firefighter stands as flames burst amongst the wreckages of the Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on 17 July 2014 US and Ukraine officials say they believe the plane was shot down

Several of those on board - it is not yet clear how many - were heading for a major international conference on HIV/Aids in Melbourne, Australian officials said.

Other airlines have announced they are now setting flight paths to avoid eastern Ukraine, while Ukraine authorities have declared the area a no-fly zone, according to European flight safety body Eurocontrol.

Multiple reports from Washington cite unnamed US officials as saying they believe the plane, which had reportedly been flying at more than 30,000 feet (10,000m), must have been brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile.

The UN Security Council is to hold an emergency meeting on the disaster on Friday morning in New York.

'Swift justice'

In his statement, the Malaysian leader said the plane's route had been declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

He said the plane had not made a distress call.

"Malaysia is unable to verify the cause of this tragedy. But we must - and we will - find out precisely what happened to this flight," Mr Najib said.

"If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice."

A message of condolence is left among candles and flowers near the Dutch embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17, which crashed in eastern Ukraine, in Kiev on 17 July 2014 Flowers have been left to mark those who died at the Dutch embassy in Kiev
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, walks away after a media conference at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia on 18 July 2014 Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said a swift investigation was needed

Malaysia is sending a team to Ukraine to help with the investigation.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said it was an "act of terrorism".

Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told the BBC he had intercepted phone conversations that proved the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the Ukraine government for restarting military operations in the area, where it is trying to regain control from pro-Russian rebels.

"The country in whose airspace this happened bears responsibility for it," he said.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko: Crash "an act of terrorism"

US President Barack Obama: "The US will offer any assistance we can"

Separatist leader Alexander Borodai, meanwhile, accused the Ukrainian government of bringing down the airliner.

In a telephone conversation, US President Barack Obama and the Dutch leader, Mark Rutte, "agreed on the need to assure immediate access to the site... to international investigators... to carry out a thorough investigation", the White House said.

A subsequent White House statement said it was "critical that there be a full, credible and unimpeded international investigation as quickly as possible".

'Mistake or terrorism'

The plane fell between Krasni Luch in Luhansk region and Shakhtarsk in the neighbouring region of Donetsk.

The head of the Russian Air Traffic Controllers' Union, Sergei Kovalyov, told BBC Russian that the airspace over eastern Ukraine had remained open during the conflict because the planes previously shot down had tended to be helicopters or low-flying fast jets.

"In order to bring down an airplane from an altitude of 10,000m, you need to have very serious weapons…. missiles," he said. "It's either a mistake or a terrorist act."

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Analysis: Jonathan Marcus, BBC News

If it does turn out that the Boeing 777 was shot down by the separatists - with weaponry supplied by Moscow - then it could significantly alter the terms of the whole debate surrounding the Ukraine crisis.

Over the past few days there has been growing concern among Western governments that Russia was stepping up its military support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Nato spokesmen insist that more and more heavy military equipment has moved from Russian stockpiles to the separatists across the border.

In response, the United States has strengthened its economic sanctions against Moscow - it is threatening even stronger action - though the European Union has so far failed to follow Washington's lead.

But if Russia in any way had a hand in this tragedy then the pressure - especially on the Europeans - for much tougher sanctions will only grow.

Game-changer in Ukraine crisis?

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Ukraine has accused Russia's military of supplying advanced missiles to the rebels.

Earlier on Thursday, Ukrainian officials blamed the Russian air force for shooting down one of its ground attack jets on Wednesday, and a transport plane on Monday.

In 2001, Ukraine admitted its military was probably responsible for shooting down a Russian airliner that crashed into the Black Sea, killing all 78 people on board.

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