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Malaysia Airlines plane crashes in Ukraine

A Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 298 people crashed Thursday in eastern Ukraine. The latest updates can be found here.

Latest updates on MH17

For the latest updates, please go here.

The URL: http://wapo.st/MH17updates

77-year-old nun among victims

A 77-year-old nun was among the victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight, an Australian school confirmed in a news release Friday.

Sister Philomene Tiernan worked at Kincoppal-Rose Bay School of the Sacred Heart in Sydney, which said she was one of more than 20 Australians aboard the plane.

“We are devastated by the loss of such a wonderfully kind, wise and compassionate woman, who was greatly loved by us all,” the school’s principal, Hilary Johnston-Croke said in a statement. “Phil contributed greatly to our community and she touched the lives of all of us in a very positive and meaningful way.”

Australian politician Malcolm Turnbull on Friday tweeted about Tiernan, who had been associated with the school for more than 30 years.

Family falls victim to MH17 and 370

From the AP: In an almost incomprehensible twist of fate, an Australian woman who lost her brother in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 learned on Friday that her stepdaughter was on the plane shot down over Ukraine.

Kaylene Mann’s brother Rod Burrows and sister-in-law Mary Burrows were on board Flight 370 when it vanished in March. On Friday, Mann found out that her stepdaughter, Maree Rizk, was killed along with 297 others on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which U.S. intelligence authorities believe was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

“It’s just brought everyone, everything back,” said Greg Burrows, Mann’s brother. “It’s just … ripped our guts again.”

Read full story

AIDS researchers, activists among dead

Reports that perhaps as many as 100 HIV researchers were on board the downed flight heading to a conference in Australia have shaken the entire profession. Among them was one of the most renowned, Joep Lange.

See full stories here and here.

Malaysia defends plane route

Kuala Lampur, Malaysia–Malaysia’s Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai faced repeated questions at a press briefing in Kuala Lumpur today about whether the route that the airline had chosen to fly over rebel-controlled areas of Ukraine was safe.

Other airlines such as Qantas had stopped flying those areas, but the minister said that more than a dozen other Asian Pacific airlines had continued to fly it and it was approved by the International Air Transport Association. He said that the plane had not sent a distress call and its systems were in good working order before the deadly crash.

Annie Gowen

Crash site tampering will complicate probe

Emergency workers at the scene of the crash. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

Emergency workers at the scene of the crash. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

Under normal circumstances, among the first people to swarm a plane crash site on land are trained professionals. Even under the best of conditions, they’re painstakingly methodical: they seal off the site to prevent tampering, videotape,  examine, preserve parts of the wreckage to be sent off in bits and pieces for analysis. They never know which part of a wing or fuselage might tell the tale, so every small find is crucial.

But the circumstances of Thursday’s Malaysia Airlines plane crash were anything but normal. It was obvious from the moment a giant explosion sounded in the distance in eastern Ukraine, spawning smoke that billowed black across the horizon. Among the first to arrive on the scene weren’t “first-responders,” or  clipboard-carrying inspectors, nor professionals trained to deal with such emergencies. They were off-duty coal miners rooting around among the wreck, according to news reports.

Terrence McCoy

Read the full story here.

Black boxes said to be in rebels' hands

The Associated Press is reporting that Ukraine rebels claim to have “most” of the data recording devices from the Malaysia Airlines plane that crashed yesterday.

Russian news agencies and Reuters were reporting the same thing.

The devices could prove critical in determining what happened to the aircraft. There was no word on what the rebels-if indeed they do have the devices-plan on doing with them.

Airline hoping to fly relatives to site

Malaysia Airlines is trying to arrange safe access for relatives of victims to the site in eastern Ukraine where its Boeing 777 airliner crashed killing all 298 on board, a spokeswoman for Amsterdam airport said on Friday, according to Reuters.

“The relatives, a few hundred of them, are currently being housed in a hotel at Schiphol,” the spokeswoman said. On Thursday, the airline’s European head said it was sending a Boeing 747 to Amsterdam to take relatives to the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

Truce discussed for crash site probe

Andriy Purgin, a self-proclaimed leader among the Donetsk rebels in Ukraine, told the Russian news agency Interfax Friday morning that separatists are ready to call a truce for two to four days in order to allow Boeing officials and international experts to have unhampered access to the plane crash site.

Purgin also told Interfax that rebels would be meeting Friday to discuss that truce with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Ukrainian government.

Karoun Demirjian

OSCE says access to site assured

Separatists have told the OSCE that they will close off the crash site and permit safe access to it for international investigators.

In an announcement on its website, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it had held a video conference with separatists in Donetsk and had been assured that they would provide “safe access and security guarantees” for both national and international crash investigators.

The organization also said separatists had committed to closing off the site in preparation for the recovery of bodies.

The White House had earlier expressed concern that “vital evidence” might get tampered with, saying it was in touch with both the U.N. and OSCE to expedite the arrival of investigators and monitors.

Renowned AIDS researchers among dead in crash

Members of the HIV research community are reeling from the news that many of their own, including world-renowned AIDS researcher Joep Lange, perished when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down Thursday over Eastern Ukraine.

The victims were on their way to the International AIDS Conference that begins this weekend in Melbourne, Australia, a trip halfway around the world that necessitated a change of planes in Kuala Lumpur.

Joel Achenbach and Ariana Cha

See the full story.

White House worried about crash evidence tampering

The White House expressed concern last night about access for international investigators to the site where Malayasian Airlines Flight 17 went down, saying it is “vital that no evidence be tampered with.”

In a statement issued at 10:38 in Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. was reaching out to member-states of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with the idea of getting them involved quickly in the investigation.

Here’s the full statement:

The United States is shocked by the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, and we offer our deep condolences to all those who lost loved ones on board.  We continue to seek information to determine whether there were any American citizens on board.

It is critical that there be a full, credible, and unimpeded international investigation as quickly as possible.  We urge all concerned – Russia, the pro-Russian separatists, and Ukraine – to support an immediate cease-fire in order to ensure safe and unfettered access to the crash site for international investigators and in order to facilitate the recovery of remains. The role of international organizations – such as the United Nations and the OSCE in Ukraine – may be particularly relevant for this effort, and we will be in touch with affected nations and our partners in these organizations in the coming hours and days to determine the best path forward.  In the meantime, it is vital that no evidence be tampered with in any way and that all potential evidence and remains at the crash site are undisturbed.  The United States remains prepared to contribute immediate assistance to any international investigation, including through resources provided by the NTSB and the FBI.

While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fueled by Russian support for the separatists, including through arms, materiel, and training.  This incident only highlights the urgency with which we continue to urge Russia to immediately take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine and to support a sustainable cease-fire and path toward peace that the Ukrainian government has consistently put forward.

Kerry: U.S. checking for Americans on board

Secretary of State John Kerry says the State Department is still reviewing whether any American citizens were on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17. Here’s his statement:

We are horrified by the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.  There are no words adequate to express our condolences to the families of the nearly 300 victims.  We offer our sympathies and support to the governments of Malaysia and the Netherlands at this difficult time, as well as to all those whose citizens may have been on board.  We are reviewing whether any American citizens were aboard the flight.  The United States Government remains prepared to assist with a credible, international investigation any way we can, and we will continue to be in touch with all relevant partners as we seek the facts of what happened today.

After MH17 goes down, relatives of MH370 passengers speak out

Chinese relatives of long-missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 passengers said in a joint statement that Thursday’s crash resurfaced many the questions and feelings they have struggled with since MH370′s disappearance in March.

In a statement posted on Weibo, the MH370 Relatives Committee said some people who lost family members on the March flight were watching TV coverage of the MH17 crash “and couldn’t stop crying.”

“We have to ask, where is the flight safety? Will every plane ride become scary like a roller-coaster?”

Noting the abundance of “different and confusing information about MH17,” the statement continued: “It’s as if the tragedy of MH 370 is happening all over again. We hope relevant countries could work together instead of undermining each other; we hope there would be consistent instead of contradicting information.”

Many Weibo users said when they saw “Malaysia Airlines” trending online, they thought MH370 had been found. Instead, many posters asked: Why Malaysia Airlines again? Some online users said that they hoped the incident would bring back attention for MH370.

– William Wan

FAA bans U.S. flights over eastern Ukraine

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice on Thursday night prohibiting any U.S. flight operations in the airspace over eastern Ukraine until further notice.

This restriction, which was issued in response to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, expands an earlier FAA order prohibiting U.S. flights from operating over certain areas in Ukraine. That prohibition was issued in April and said U.S. flights could not operate in the airspace over the Crimean region and near the Black Sea “due to the continuing potential for instability.”

The April notice did not cover the airspace where the Malaysia Air flight was shot down.

After a plane gets shot down, confusion about who is to blame

The wreckage of the crashed jet. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

In the hours after a Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in eastern Ukraine, the only thing immediately clear was that nearly 300 people had died. Beyond that, there was confusion, as groups and officials began making claims and counterclaims, accusations and rebuttals, with no unequivocal answers as to who was responsible for shooting down the Boeing 777.

The arguments began almost immediately, as the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine quickly blamed each other for the crashing of Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. But as comments were posted on social media sites and taken down, and as audio recordings were produced and fingers pointed, things only became more and more murky.

U.S. intelligence officials confirmed Thursday that the plane was taken down by a surface-to-air missile. But analysts were still scrambling to determine who actually fired the missile.

An official with the Ukrainian government quickly claimed that pro-Russian rebels used a missile system to shoot down the plane. Anton Herashenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, wrote on Facebook that a Buk anti-aircraft missile system — which he said was provided to the rebels by Russian President Vladimir Putin — shot down the plane in an area held by pro-Russian rebels.

Like Herashenko, Putin, in televised remarks, also blamed the rebels for the crash. But they denied responsibility and blamed the Ukrainian government, arguing that they lacked the capabilities to shoot down a commercial airliner.

“The plane was shot down by the Ukrainian side,” said Serhiy Kavtaradze, a member of the rebels’ security council, according to Interfax. “We simply do not have such air defense systems.”

Kavtaradze said the rebels have shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles with “a firing range of only 3,000 to 4,000 meters” — about 10,000 to 13,000 feet — and that passenger jets fly at much higher altitudes.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denied that the government shot down the plane, saying that Ukraine’s armed forces “did not take action against any airborne targets,” according to the Associated Press.

While rebels in eastern Ukraine denied having the rocket launcher needed for such an attack, journalists with the Associated Press had reported seeing a similar weapon in this region earlier in the day. The Buk missile system is capable of reaching a plane expected to be flying between 33,000 and 37,000 feet.

And in a conversation between President Obama and Putin on Thursday morning discussing recent U.S. sanctions against Russia, Obama noted “extensive evidence that Russia is significantly increasing the provision of heavy weapons to separatists in Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.

Adding to the confusion, the Ukraine Security Service later released a recording of what it claimed were intercepted phone calls capturing pro-Russian separatists discussing shooting down a plane. The Washington Post could not independently verify the recording or any of the individuals on it. (Three Russian language speakers working for The Washington Post have verified the English translation used here.)

The recording appears to be a composite of three separate conversations; at one point, a voice on the recording identified by the Ukrainian intelligence agency says either “we have just shot down a plane” or “they have just downed the plane.” In another portion of the recording, one voice describes seeing “lots of corpses of women and children” on the ground.

“They say on TV it’s an AN-26 transport plane, but they say it’s written Malaysia Airlines on the plane,” the voice said. “What was it doing on Ukraine’s territory?”

Another posting that appeared to comment on the plane appeared on a social media site before being shot down. Not long after the plane went down, a social media page frequently attributed in Ukrainian media to Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who describes himself as a rebel military leader, seemed to post something that appeared to claim responsibility for the downed plane.

“We have just shot down an AN-26 plane in the Torez region, it is lying somewhere near the Progress mine,” read the post at 5:50 p.m. Moscow time on the social media site VKontakte. “We have warned emphatically: Do not fly in ‘our sky.’”

The Washington Post has not confirmed that the posting was created by Girkin or someone associated with the rebels. The post, which appeared to suggest that the pro-Russian forces thought the aircraft was a Ukrainian military transport plane, claimed to offer “video confirmation” of the crash. However, after news emerged that the downed plane was a commercial airliner, the post was removed.

Ukrainian officials also said that two other planes were shot down earlier in the week: A Ukrainian air force jet, which they said was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane on Wednesday; and a military transport plane, which they said was shot down Monday by a missile fired from Russian territory.

World leaders and politicians quickly reacted to the crash, offering condolences and assistance, but some reactions were muddled based on the confusion. Sen. John McCain (R) told reporters Thursday afternoon that “the culpable party here is Putin,” though he admitted that his comments were based solely on news reports, which at the time were inconclusive and lacking many details.

This confusion is likely to linger, because any investigation is expected to be complicated by the fighting in the region. A Ukrainian regional official said after the crash that rebels did not allow the government access to the plane for the first hour, while Russian officials are insisting that they have a right to be included in any investigation of the crash. And pro-Russian separatists told Interfax they had found “black box” flight recorders at the crash scene, saying later that they planned to give them to officials in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the plane was filled with Dutch, Malaysian, Australian and Indonesian citizens, among others, which meant that the crash transcended the Ukrainian-Russian border and touched countries around the world. So in addition to Russian officials wanting to be part of the investigation, other countries could also insist on being part of the efforts to understand the crash.

Karoun Demirjian and Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow and Abby Phillip, Isabelle Khurshudyan and Kirill Kozionov in Washington contributed to this report.

RELATED: Flights are avoiding the airspace over Ukraine.

AIDS researchers among MH17 crash victims

Members of the international HIV research community who are heading to Melbourne for a huge International AIDS Conference beginning this weekend are in a state of shock and grief after hearing reports that a prominent European researcher and at least several other delegates perished when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down Thursday over eastern Ukraine.

“The International AIDS Society (IAS) today expresses its sincere sadness at receiving news that a number of colleagues and friends en route to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference taking place in Melbourne, Australia, were on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight that has crashed over Ukraine earlier today,” conference officials said in a statement. “At this incredibly sad and sensitive time the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy.”

The identities of the victims have not been confirmed by the airlines.

“There are Australians who would have planned to be at the airport tomorrow night to greet friends and family — amongst them, some of the world’s leading AIDS experts,” Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten told Parliament Friday morning, according to the Associated Press. “The cost of this will be felt in many parts of the world.”

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is to deliver an address at next week’s AIDS conference, which brings together thousands of scientists and activists from around the world to discuss the latest developments in HIV and AIDS research.

House of Representatives Speaker Bronwyn Bishop called for a moment of silence in parliament to honor the victims, adding that she was scheduled to address the AIDS conference on Monday.

“I know there will be many empty spots,” Bishop said. “And I think that what we’re doing is mourning with all of the world and all that had been lost. And we want to see justice but in a measured way.”

One delegate described the group that had already gathered in Australia as being devastated. About 14,000 delegates are expected at the conference.

AIDS research has been marked by previous aviation disasters. Irving Sigal, a molecular biologist who helped develop the drugs used to treat HIV, died in the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Ten years later, prominent researchers Jonathan Mann and Mary Lou Clements-Mann died in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia.

– Joel Achenbach

Malaysia Airlines ups death toll: 298 people on board, including three infants

There were 298 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 when it was shot down Thursday, not 295 as the airline originally said.

In announcing the new number in a statement, the airline said there were three infants on the plane:

As opposed to the earlier statement, the flight was carrying a total number of 298 people – comprising 283 passengers including three infants of various nationalities and 15 crew of Malaysian nationality. Some of the nationalities of the passengers are yet to be determined.

The airline said in the statement that all of its European flights “will be taking alternative routes avoiding the usual route” — though, it added, Flight 17′s usual route “was earlier declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. International Air Transportation Association has stated that the airspace the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.”

In its statement, the airlines also released details about the nationalities of most of the passengers and crew members who were aboard Flight 17.

passenger-liveblog

Ukrainian Security Service releases video claiming rebels confess to downing MH17

Ukraine’s intelligence service claimed Thursday that it intercepted a recording of several separatists and a Russian military intelligence officer conferring about the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down.

The recording — an apparent composite of three separate conversations — was broadcast on Russian radio station Ekho Moskvi and published online by the Kyiv Post and also on the Ukrainian Security Service’s website and YouTube page.

The Washington Post could not independently verify the recording or the individuals identified in it. However, three Russian language speakers working for The Washington Post independently verified the English translation used here.

One voice on the tape — identified by the Ukrainian intelligence agency as Igor Bezler, one of the leaders in the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine — says either “we have just shot down a plane” or “they have just down the plane.” (This Russian statement could be translated in either way in the context of this conversation.)

The middle portion of the video is a conversation between two different people described as “terrorist” [sic] in the English subtitles produced by the Ukrainian intelligence agency. They discuss the downing of the plane, saying it was shot down by a group of insurgents, referred to as “Cossacks,” who were located near the Chernukhin checkpoint, which is 15 miles north of the crash site, according to the Associated Press.

“Well, what do you have there?” says a person, identified in the Security Service video as “Greek.”

“In short, it was 100 percent a passenger aircraft,” answers another voice, calling from the crash scene and identified in the video as “Major.”

Later in the video, in a separate conversation, a militant describes the scene at the crash site:

“There are lots of corpses of women and children. The Cossacks are out there looking at all this… They say on TV it’s an AN-26 transport plane, but they say it’s written Malaysia Airlines on the plane. What was it doing on Ukraine’s territory?”

Karoun Demirjian and Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow and Isabelle Khurshudyan and Kirill Kozionov in Washington contributed to this report.

Obama discusses plane crash with Ukrainian president

President Obama spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday to discuss the Malaysian Airlines plane crash. Obama “assured him that U.S. experts will offer all possible assistance immediately,” according to the White House, which said Poroshenko “welcomed the assistance.”

Head to Post Politics for more.

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