KIEV, Ukraine -- A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people aboard crashed Thursday in Ukraine near the Russian border after reportedly being hit by a missile, according to an adviser to Ukraine's interior ministry.
Malaysia Airlines confirmed on its Facebook page that Ukrainian air traffic control lost contact with flight MH17 about 30 miles from the Russian-Ukraine border. The airlines said the plane was carrying 280 passengers and 15 crew members.
An Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the crash site near the village of Grabovo. The nationalities of the victims were not immediately available.
The regional government in Donetsk, which is controlled by armed pro-Russian separatists, said its forces control the area around the crash site.
Malaysia Airlines has lost contact of MH17 from Amsterdam. The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow.— Malaysia Airlines (@MAS) July 17, 2014
Anton Gerashenko, the Interior Ministry adviser, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet when it was hit Thursday by a missile fired from a BUK launcher, the Associated Press reports.
BUK, also known as SA-17 GRIZZLY, is a mobile anti-aircraft system mounted usually on a tracked vehicle or truck that can simultaneously track and strike six targets flying from different directions and at different altitudes, according to military think tank Globalsecurity.org.
A similar launcher was seen by AP journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the incident a "terrorist act" and ordered an investigation into the tragedy. He said Ukrainian armed forces did not 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."
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine and Russian military officials also denied responsibility for the apparent shootdown.
Russian President Vladimir Putin brought up early reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border in a phone call with President Obama Thursday morning, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Earnest said Obama "has directed his team to be in close touch with senior Ukrainian officials on this matter."
In brief remarks before a public address in Wilmington, Del., Obama called the the incident a "terrible tragedy." He said the administration was trying to determine whether any Americans were on board.
It was not immediately clear who would have been in control of a BUK anti-aircraft system in the restive area where Ukrainian forces are battling ethnic Russian separatists.
A separatist leader in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, denied that rebel forces had the capability to shoot down a plane at such an altitude.
Alexander Boroday, chairman of the Council of Ministers of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, called the incident a provocation by the Ukrainian military, the Russian Interfax news agency reports.
"We confirm that the plane crashed not far from Donetsk," Boroday said. "Representatives of Donetsk People's Republic have headed to the scene of the plane search."
"Self-defense forces have no air-defense, which could target transport aircraft at that height," he told Interfax.
Russia's military also says none of its military planes have been flying close to the Russia-Ukraine border on Thursday, RIA Novosti reported citing an unidentified military official.
The Malaysian airliner crash occurred in a region where separatists have shot down Ukrainians aircraft at higher and higher altitudes in recent days, says Damon Wilson, a Russia and Ukraine expert in the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
On Wednesday, a Russian military plane allegedly shot down a Ukrainian jet fighter over Ukrainian territory, forcing the pilot to eject, according to the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman.
Andriy Lysenko told reporters the pilot of the Su-25 assault aircraft was not injured and was rescued by Ukrainian military units.
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.
"There have been Ukrainian helicopters and aircraft operating under the assumption of limited separatist capabilities," Wilson said. "They've learned quite rudely that the separatists have more advanced weapons."
Separatists have used a version of Russia's Grad rocket that the Russian military only started using in January, Wilson said, citing sources in "U.S. government circles."
"This is not older, former equipment but among the most recent Russian equipment used in the Russian military," Wilson said, who is now deputy executive vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
Officials still have not finished the investigation into Malaysia Air Flight 730, which went down March 8 with 239 people on board.
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