A Malaysian airliner was brought down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 295 people on board.
Ukraine accused “terrorists” – militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia – of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with a heavy ground-to-air missile as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Leaders of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement, although around the same time their military commander said his forces had downed a much smaller Ukrainian transport plane.
The scale of the disaster affecting scores of foreigners could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve a crisis that has claimed hundreds of lives in Ukraine.
Witnesses said they saw burning and charred wreckage bearing the red and blue Malaysia insignia and dozens of bodies strewn in fields near the village of Hrabove, 40 km (25 miles) from the Russian border near the rebel-held regional capital of Donetsk.
U.S. President Barack Obama said he was trying to establish whether Americans were aboard. A Ukrainian official said there were 23. France said at least four of its citizens were aboard.
Malaysia Airlines said air traffic controllers lost contact with flight MH-17 at 1415 GMT as it flew over eastern Ukraine towards the Russian border, bound for Asia with 280 passengers and 15 crew aboard. Flight tracking data indicated it was at its cruising altitude of 33,000 feet when it disappeared.
That would be beyond the range of smaller rockets used by the rebels to bring down helicopters and other low-flying Ukrainian military aircraft – but not of the SA-11 system which a Ukrainian official accused Russia of supplying to the rebels.
“I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang,” one local man said at Hrabove, known in Russian as Grabovo. “Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke.”
An emergency worker said at least 100 bodies had been found so far and that debris was spread over 15 km. People were scouring the area for the black box flight recorders.
“MH-17 is not an incident or catastrophe, it is a terrorist attack,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted.
The loss of MH-17 is the second disaster for Malaysia Airlines this year, following the mysterious loss of flight MH-370. It disappeared in March with 239 passengers and crew on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.