Malaysia faces tough questions on safety of plane’s route over eastern Ukraine

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai faced repeated questions Friday about whether the route that Malaysia Airlines chose to fly over rebel-controlled areas of Ukraine was safe.

In a news briefing on the crash of Flight MH17, which was apparently shot down Thursday over eastern Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Liow insisted that although some airlines such as Australia’s Qantas had stopped flying over that area, more than a dozen other Asian-Pacific airlines had continued to use that route, which he said was approved by the International Air Transport Association.

He said the Malaysian plane did not send a distress call and that its systems were in good working order before it crashed with 298 people on board.

“This is an approved route, and it is a safe route,” the minister said. He noted that the airline had flown over the eastern part of Ukraine “for many years.”

If the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, as many experts now believe, “it would be an outrage against human decency,” Liow said. “Malaysia condemns such action in the strongest possible terms and calls for those responsible to be swiftly brought to justice.”

He said the Ukrainian government will be investigating the crash and pledged Malaysia’s “full and unqualified” cooperation, renewing the government’s call for an independent investigation into the crash. “It is essential that the integrity of the crash site be preserved out of respect to the investigation,” he said.

Liow again expressed the government’s sympathy for those who lost their lives and their families. He said the airline was still in the process of notifying the next of kin of the victims, but he provided a new nationality breakdown, which is still not complete.

The bulk of the passengers, 189, were from the Netherlands, with 44 Malaysians including crew members, the airline said Friday. In addition, the plane carried 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos, one Canadian and one New Zealander, Malaysia Airlines said. The nationalities of four passengers were not identified.

The list did not include any Americans, and there has been no official confirmation that any Americans were on the plane. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement Thursday that the State Department was reviewing whether any U.S. citizens were on the downed flight.

Liow said the government did not have plans to fly relatives of the victims to Kiev.

About 20 victim families are staying at the Marriott Hotel in Putrajaya, a federal territory near Kuala Lumpur. They gathered Friday night in the hotel dining room to break their Ramadan fast, but staff from Malaysia Airlines enforced a tight cordon, saying the families did not want not to speak to reporters.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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