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Malaysia says jetliner did not make distress call

by EILEEN NG Associated Press on July 17, 2014 6:51 PM

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated at 6:51 p.m.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The Malaysia Airlines jetliner that went down in war-torn Ukraine did not make any distress call, Malaysia's prime minister said Friday, adding that its flight route also had been declared safe by the global civil aviation body.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who addressed a news conference after speaking with leaders of Ukraine, the Netherlands, and President Barack Obama, said "no stone will be left unturned" in finding out what happened to Flight 17.

This is the second tragedy to hit Malaysia Airlines this year. Its Flight 370 disappeared on March 8 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean west of Australia.

"This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia," Najib said.

In both tragedies, the planes were the wide-bodied Boeing 777-200.

Najib told reporters that Ukrainian authorities believe Flight 17, which was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 280 passengers and 15 crew, was shot down today.

A U.S. official said American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile took down the plane, but it is not clear who fired it. He said it appears unlikely the Ukrainian government, which has denied responsibility, shot down the plane because it doesn't have the capabilities. Pro-Russia separatists fighting the government have also denied any responsibility.

"At this stage, however, Malaysia is unable to verify the cause of this tragedy but we must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight," Najib said. "If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice," he said.

Najib said the aircraft flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The International Air Transportation Association had also stated that the air space that the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions, he said. Besides, "Malaysia Airlines has confirmed that the aircraft did not make a distress call."

Still, a former head of airports security group BAA suggested that many airlines including Malaysia Airlines had continued to use the route despite warnings because it was shorter and cheaper.

"It is a busy aviation route and there have been suggestions that a notice was given to aviators telling airlines to avoid that particular area," said Norman Shanks, who is also professor of aviation security at Coventry University in England.

"But Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, have been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money," he told The Associated Press.

He said the Ukrainian government has promised a full and thorough investigation which will include Malaysian officials. He said they will also negotiate with rebels to "establish a humanitarian corridor to the crash site."

In his conversation with Obama, Najib said, they agreed that "the investigation must not be hindered in any way. An international team must have full access to the crash site. And no one must interfere with the area, or move any debris, including the black box."

Earlier, several relatives of those on board the Malaysian airliner began arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to seek news of their loved ones.

A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor said her older sister, who lives in Geneva, was on her way back to celebrate Eid with the family.

The 67-year-old sister has lived in Geneva for 30 years and last visited the family in Kuala Lumpur five years ago, she said.

"She was coming back from Geneva to celebrate (Eid) with us for the first time in 30 years," Akmar said in between sobs. "She called me just before she boarded the plane and said 'see you soon," Akmar said.

She said the family saw the news on TV and rushed to the airport to get details.

Several other angry relatives were shouting and demanding to see the passenger manifest but there was no official from Malaysian Airline present, and security guards prevented them from going into the airline's operating area.

"We have been waiting for four hours. We found out the news from international media. The Facebook is more efficient than MAS. It's so funny, they are a laughing stock," an angry young man told reporters. He declined to give his name.

As plumes of black smoke rose up near the rebel-held village of Grabovo, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the wreckage site 25 miles from the Russian border.

The Boeing 777-200ER plane, traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, appeared to have broken up before impact and the burning wreckage — which included body parts and the belongings of passengers — was scattered over a wide area.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash. He insisted that his forces did not shoot down the plane.

President Barack Obama called the crash a "terrible tragedy" and talked about it on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The village of Grabovo is currently under the control of pro-Russia separatists and the area has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days.

Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to today's crash. Within hours, several airlines, including Lufthansa and KLM, released statements today saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.

Malaysia Airlines said Ukrainian aviation authorities told the company they had lost contact with Flight MH17 at 10 a.m. Eastern about 20 miles from Tamak waypoint, which is 30 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border.

The plane had left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. Friday.

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 from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 72,000 feet.

Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have SA-17 missile systems — also known as Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.

He said Russia had supplied separatist rebels with military hardware, but he had seen no evidence "of the transfer of that type of system from Russia." The weapons that the rebels are known to have do not have the capacity to reach beyond 14,750 feet.

A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists earlier today near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.

The Malaysia Airlines plane was delivered to the company on July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal's Ascend Online Fleets. It has more than 43,000 hours of flight time and 6,950 takeoffs and landings.

Poroshenko said his country's armed forces didn't shoot at any airborne targets.

"We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets," he said. "We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible."

The Kremlin said Putin "informed the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory" without giving further details about their call. The White House confirmed the call.

Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told The Associated Press that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down, but gave no explanation or proof for his statement.

Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, they had no fighters capable of operating it.

Around the time the plane crashed, Russian media quoted witnesses as saying they saw a plane being hit by what they thought was a rocket.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been attending a European Union summit in Brussels, headed back to the Netherlands to deal with fallout from the crash.

There have been several disputes over planes being shot down over eastern Ukraine in recent days.

On Wednesday evening, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday, adding to what Kiev says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatist insurgents. Ukraine Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said the pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet hit by the air-to-air missile was forced to bail after his jet was shot down.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that Russia did not shoot down the Ukrainian fighter jet on Wednesday. "We didn't do it," Churkin said

Pro-Russia rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, but added the pilot was unscathed and managed to land his plane safely

Moscow denies Western charges that is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest in its neighbor.

Earlier this week, Ukraine said a military transport plane was shot down Monday over eastern Ukraine by a missile fired from Russian territory.

Other passenger planes have been shot down before including:

— April 20, 1978: Korean Airlines Flight 902, which diverted from its planned course on a flight from Paris to Seoul and strayed over the Soviet Union. After being fired upon by an interceptor aircraft, the crew made a forced landing at night on the surface of a frozen lake. Two of the 97 passengers were killed by the hostile fire.

— Sept. 1, 1983: Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down by at least one Soviet air-to-air missile after the 747 had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 240 passengers and 29 crew were killed.

— July 3, 1988: Iran Air Flight 655 Aircraft was shot down by a surface to air missile from the American naval vessel U.S.S. Vincennes. All 16 crew and 274 passengers were killed.

Peter Leonard reported from Kiev. Contributing to this report were Mstyslav Chernovap; AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York; Jill Lawless and Matthew Knight in London; Laura Mills and Jim Heintz in Moscow; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; and Satish Cheney in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

PHOTO: A woman at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, reacted Friday to news regarding a Malaysia Airlines plane that crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. (Joshua Paul/Associated Press)

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