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Malaysia Airlines plane shot down near Russian border of Ukraine

July 17, 2014 at 6:02 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The fighting in Eastern Ukraine took a deadly new turn today. A Malaysia Airlines plane flying over the region was shot down with all 295 passengers and crew board feared dead.

Malaysia Airlines said at least 154 were Dutch citizens, along with 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians and 11 Indonesians. The nationalities of most of the rest were not yet confirmed.

The circumstances remained murky, but smoke rising into the Eastern Ukrainian sky left little doubt of the extent of the tragedy. The burning remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 lay scattered over a wide area. It appeared the Boeing 777 had broken up before impact. The plane, seen here in recent years, had been flying at 33,000 feet, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, when it disappeared.

The crash site lay just 25 miles from the Russian border, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, now held by the rebels. It didn’t take long for the accusations to begin.

In a Facebook post, a Ukrainian interior ministry official declared the airliner was shot down by rebels using a Russian-made SA-17 system. Its missiles can reach altitudes of 72,000 feet.

Just as quickly, the self-proclaimed rebel prime minister of the People’s Republic of Donetsk denied involvement.

ALEXANDER BORODAI, Donetsk People’s Republic (through interpreter): A passenger aircraft has been shot down, indeed, shot down by Ukrainian air forces. To tell the truth, this is a provocation on purpose. In principle, this is not the first time for Ukraine to shoot down passenger aircrafts, as you know.

GWEN IFILL: But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his military has not fired on any airborne targets, and he called for an international investigation.

PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukraine (through interpreter): I just finished a conversation with the prime minister of the Netherlands. I offered our condolences on behalf of the Ukrainian people and invited Dutch experts to open an investigation of this act of terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, White House officials said President Obama learned of the crash from Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone call on U.S. sanctions against Moscow.

Later, in Delaware, the president called the event a terrible tragedy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why. And, as a country, our thoughts and prayers are with all the families of the passengers, wherever they call home.

GWEN IFILL: For Malaysia Airlines, it’s the second major catastrophe in six months. Last March, Flight 370 disappeared while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A search of the Indian Ocean off Australia has yet to yield any sign of that plane.