Britain has called for a United Nations-led investigation after a passenger plane carrying almost 300 people, including a number of Britons, was apparently shot down over Ukraine.
At least six UK citizens were among the 280 passengers and 15 crew on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was hit by a surface-to-air missile yesterday afternoon.
Graphic images showed a pall of smoke, charred wreckage and bodies at the crash scene in eastern Ukraine as both the Ukranian government and pro-Russian rebels denied responsibility for the attack.
Newly-appointed Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who will chair a Cobra meeting in Downing Street today, said last night: “We believe there must be a UN-led international investigation of the facts.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “shocked and saddened” by the tragedy, while Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described it as a “terrorist act”.
The Boeing 777 plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet over eastern Ukraine when it was apparently hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher, a Soviet era surface-to-air missile system capable of taking down a high-altitude aircraft.
The Ukrainian government immediately blamed Russian-backed separatists with President Poroshenko declaring the “armed forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets”. Anton Gerashenko, an aide to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, said a similar launcher was reportedly seen by journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier yesterday.
A rebel spokesman refuted the accusation, saying the plane must have been shot down by Ukrainian government troops.
The country has been torn apart by internal strife since the overthrow of the Moscow-backed regime of Viktor Yanukovych, with separatists already accused by the authorities in Kiev of shooting down military jets with missiles supplied by Russia.
Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister, spoke of his country’s sadness last night and said: “If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice.”
He said steps were being taken to establish a “humanitarian corridor” to the crash site and called for the area to be protected from interference.
The incident is bound to put more pressure on Russia to rein in the rebels, who last night were reported to have offered to call a truce to allow investigations to take place.
In the aftermath of the tragedy Russian president Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Barack Obama spoke by phone amid suggestions several US citizens were on board.
Questions are also being asked about why the route was still being used by passenger airlines given previous incidents of attacks on military aircraft.
A UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesman said airlines were now being advised to avoid the area.
A Department for Transport spokesman confirmed: “Pilots around the world have been advised to plan routes that avoid the area.”