br>By Anton Zverev
GRABOVO, Ukraine, July 17 (Reuters) - A Malaysian airliner was brought down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard and sharply raising stakes in a conflict between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels in which Russia and the West back opposing sides.
Ukraine accused "terrorists" - militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia - of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with a heavy, Soviet-era ground-to-air missile as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Leaders of rebels in the 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 - their third such kill this week.
Reuters journalists saw burning and charred wreckage bearing the red and blue Malaysia insignia and dozens of bodies strewn in fields near the village of Grabovo, 40 km (25 miles) from the Russian border near the rebel-held regional capital of Donetsk.
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 since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed Crimea a month later.
As word came in of what Ukraine's Western-backed president called a "terrorist attack", the Russian and U.S. leaders, Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, were discussing a new round of economic sanctions that Washington and its EU partners imposed on Moscow on Wednesday to try to force Putin to do more to curb the revolt against the Western-backed government in Kiev.
They noted the early reports during their telephone call, the White House said, adding that Obama warned of further sanctions if Moscow did not change course in Ukraine.
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.
"I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang," one local man at Grabovo told Reuters. "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 (9 miles). Workers 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. He has stepped up his military campaign against the rebels since a ceasefire late last month failed to produce any negotiations.
Russia, which Western powers accuse of trying to destabilize Ukraine to maintain influence over its old Soviet empire, has accused Kiev's leaders of mounting a fascist coup. It says it is holding troops in readiness to protect Russian-speakers in the east - the same rationale it used for taking over Crimea.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry official Anton Gerashchenko said on Facebook: "Just now, over Torez, terrorists using a Buk anti-aircraft system kindly given to them by Putin have shot down a civilian airliner flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur."
"There is no limit to the cynicism of Putin and his terrorists!" he wrote on the social media site. "Europe, USA, Canada, the civilized world, open your eyes! Help us in any way you can! This is a war of good against evil!"
A rebel leader said Ukrainian forces shot the airliner down and that rebel forces did not have weaponry capable of hitting a plane flying 10 km (six miles) up. Ukrainian officials said their military was not involved in the incident.
The military commander of the rebels, a Russian named Igor Strelkov, had written on his social media page at 1337 GMT, half an hour before the last reported contact with MH-17, that his forces had brought down an Antonov An-26 in the same area. It is a turboprop transport plane of a type used by Ukraine's forces.
There was no comment on that from the Ukrainian military.
Several Ukrainian planes and helicopters have been shot down in four months of fighting in the area. Ukraine had said an An-26 was shot down on Monday and one of its Sukhoi Su-25 fighters was downed on Wednesday by an air-to-air missile - Kiev's strongest accusation yet of direct Russian involvement, since the rebels do not appear to have access to aircraft.
Moscow has denied its forces are involved in any way.
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.
In 2001, Ukraine admitted its military was probably responsible for shooting down a Russian airliner that crashed into the Black Sea, killing all 78 people on board. A senior Ukrainian official said it had most likely been downed by an accidental hit from an S-200 rocket fired during exercises.
In 1983, a Soviet jet fighter shot down a South Korean airliner after it veered off course into Russian air space and failed to respond to attempts to make contact. All 269 passengers and crew were killed.
In 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner over the Gulf, killing all 290 passengers and crew, in what the United States said was an accident after crew mistook the plane for a fighter. Tehran called it a deliberate attack. (Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Millership)
UPDATE: 9:00 p.m. ET -- The number of people aboard the Malaysian Airlines plane that crashed over Ukraine has been updated to reflect the latest information from Malaysia Airlines.
BEFORE YOU GO
07/25/2014 11:29 PM EDT
Document: EU Extends Russia Sanctions
A document shows that EU sanctions ar targeting Russian businesses, the AP reports:
A European Union document shows that among those targeted by the EU-wide asset freeze and travel ban are Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian Federal Security.
Also targeted is Sergei Beseda, head of the FSB service that oversees international operations and intelligence activity.
07/25/2014 5:21 PM EDT
AP Journalists Saw Rebels With BUK Missiles Hours Before MH17 Crashed
Associated Press journalists in Ukraine saw a BUK missile system -- the type that the US says downed Flight MH17 -- in rebel hands just hours before the plane was shot down, the news agency says in detailed account of the day's events. AP says that while the rebels officially deny responsibility, "the denials are increasingly challenged by accounts of residents, the observations of journalists on the ground, and the statements of one rebel official." Further, one rebel official told AP that they were behind the plane tragedy.
More from the AP story:
A highly placed rebel, speaking to the AP this week, admitted that rebels were responsible. He said a unit based in the hometown of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, made up of both Russians and Ukrainians, was involved in the firing of an SA-11 from near Snizhne. The rebel, who has direct access to the inner circle of the insurgent leadership in Donetsk, said that he could not be named because he was contradicting the rebels' official line.
The rebels believed they were targeting a Ukrainian military plane, this person said. Instead, they hit the passenger jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard were killed.
Read the full account here.
07/25/2014 2:59 PM EDT
White House: Russia 'Culpable' For Downed Jet
In a briefing on Friday, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there has been a "steady flow" of weapons from Russia into Ukraine, and emphasized the position that Russia played a role in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch reports.
Russia 'culpable' for Malaysia Air jet downed in Ukraine: White House http://t.co/bJR9bYh7js— MarketWatch (@MarketWatch) July 25, 2014
The Pentagon said on Friday that the transfer of missile systems from Russia to separatists in Ukraine appeared to be imminent. On Thursday, the U.S. claimed that Russia had fired on Ukrainian military positions.
07/25/2014 1:54 PM EDT
Ukrainian Security Release Tape Of Rebels Allegedly Discussing MH17
Ukraine's security service, SBU, on Friday released a recording it said was of a phone call between pro-Russian separatists discussing a plane overhead, minutes before the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over east Ukraine. “I see… Roger... Report it upstairs,” the rebel commander says, according to a translation.
Writing for Mashable, Christopher Miller notes that the recording has not been authenticated and the commander "stops short of giving the order to shoot down Flight 17," however the implication is clearly to build a case that the rebels shot down the plane.
07/25/2014 1:14 PM EDT
Russia Accuses U.S. Of 'Smear Campaign' Over Ukraine
Responding to U.S. officials assertion that Russia was firing artillery on Ukrainian military positions across the border, Russia on Friday countered by calling the claim a baseless "smear campaign,"AFP reports.
A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said, "Due to the smear campaign against us that the US Administration has begun... we reject the unfounded public insinuations that US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf is spreading on a daily basis," adding that Harf has used "a basketful of these anti-Russian cliches," to influence perceptions of Russia. The statement refuted the U.S. State Departments claim on Russia targeting Ukraine military, saying "There are no facts or specifics about these falsehoods."
More from AFP.
-- Andrew Hart
07/25/2014 1:06 PM EDT
U.S. Ambassador: 15,000 Russian Troops At Border
#BREAKING: More than 15,000 Russian troops amassed along border with Ukraine: U.S. ambassador to NATO— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 25, 2014
07/25/2014 12:58 PM EDT
More On The Remarks Out Of The Pentagon
The Pentagon said on Friday the transfer of heavy caliber multiple launch rocket systems from
Russia to Ukrainian separatists appeared to be imminent, with the arms close enough to the border they could be handed over "potentially today."
"We have indications that the Russians intend to supply heavier and more sophisticated multiple launch rocket systems in the very near future," said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, adding that the weapons were in the over-200mm range.
Warren indicated the weapons had been seen getting closer to the border and the Pentagon believed a transfer was imminent and "potentially today."
"We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time, at any moment," he said.
07/25/2014 12:45 PM EDT
Pentagon Says Russia Is Readying Weapons For Transfer To Ukraine Rebels
Pentagon: Russia readying powerful weapons for rebels in Ukraine, transfer could happen any time. http://t.co/xZnfkBUWSV— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) July 25, 2014
07/25/2014 11:34 AM EDT
Australia To Send 100 Additional Police and Personnel To Secure Crash Site
(Reuters) - Australia will send 100 additional police and some defense force personnel to Europe to join a planned Dutch-led international security force to secure the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, some of whom will be armed, will join a contingent of 90 AFP officers already in London waiting for a deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be approved by Ukraine's parliament.
"This is a humanitarian mission, with a clear and simple objective," Abbott told reporters. "I expect the operation on the ground in Ukraine, should the deployment go ahead, to last no longer than a few weeks."
Read the full story here.
07/25/2014 11:03 AM EDT
Russian Newspaper Runs Front Page Apology For MH17
A leading Russian newspaper has issued an apology on its front page, asking for forgiveness from the people of the Netherlands who lost their loved ones in the Malaysian Airlines plane crash. The front page of Novaya Gazeta on Friday featured the words "Vergeef ons, Nederlands" (Forgive Us, Netherlands) in bold above a heartbreaking image of the line of hearses carrying MH17 victim's bodies.
Read the full story on the Huffington Post here.