KUALA LUMPUR – 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 members, was shot down Thursday.
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 AP.
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.
Ukraine meanwhile earlier said Thursday that the plane had been shot down, but both the government and the pro-Russia separatists who have been fighting in the region denied any responsibility for downing the plane.
Malaysia Airlines had earlier tweeted that it lost contact with one of its flights as it was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Ukrainian airspace, but did not yet confirm the crash.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash.
The Donetsk region government said a plane crashed Thursday near a village called Grabovo, which it said is currently under the control of the separatists. The region where the flight was lost has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet). He said it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher, which can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).
The Malaysia Airlines plane is a Boeing 777-200ER, which was delivered to Malaysia Airlines on July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets, which sells and tracks information about aircraft. 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.”
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told AP 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, there had no fighters capable of operating it.
A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by AP journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said on Twitter there’s no confirmation that Thursday’s plane was shot down. He said he has instructed the country’s military to check.
There have been disputes over planes being shot down earlier in the region.
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. 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.
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. The Russian Defense Ministry couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday about the Ukrainian jet being shot down.
Earlier this week, Ukraine said a military transport plane was shot down Monday by a missile fired from Russian territory.