A Ukrainian official said 23 Americans were aboard Malaysia Flight MH17, reportedly shot down in the troubled Donetsk region of the Ukraine near the Russian border Thursday. President Barack Obama said, however, that the U.S. is still checking to see if any Americans were among the 295 people killed on the doomed flight.
"Obviously, the world is watching reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border, and it looks like it may be a terrible tragedy. Right now we are working to determine whether there were American citizens on board," Obama said in brief remarks in Delaware on Thursday, according to Reuters, which reported the figure from the Ukrainian official.
A Wall Street Journal report said at least 55 Dutch citizens were on the flight while France said at least four French citizens were aboard.
Malaysia Airlines lost contact with Flight MH17 about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russia-Ukraine border, according to the Journal. The Boeing 777 aircraft had left Amsterdam, Netherlands, about noon on Thursday and was scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with 280 passengers and 15 crew members early Friday but it never completed the trip.
The region where Flight MH17 crashed Thursday has been troubled by fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia militants seeking to declare the area an independent republic. Just this week Ukrainian authorities said one of their military cargo planes and a military fighter jet had been downed in the area explained the Journal.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine's Interior Ministry, said the plane went down near the village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region as it flew at a height of about 10,000 meters (32,800 feet). And in a phone call with the Journal he accused the pro-Russian militants as being responsible for the crash.
"They clearly thought that it was a military transport plane that they were shooting at," he claimed. "They were the ones who did this."
Gerashchenko alleged on his Facebook page that the militants had acquired a Buk surface-to-air missile system which locals reportedly saw them parading near the towns of Snizhne and Torez Thursday. Just an hour before the plane went down, he said a convoy with the anti-aircraft missile was seen heading toward Shakhtarsk, a town not far from the crash site explained the Journal.
Separatist leaders denied blamed Ukrainian forces for downing the aircraft and denied having surface-to-air missiles powerful enough to shoot down a Boeing 777 at the height MH 17 was reportedly flying.
"The plane was shot down by the Ukrainian side," Sergei Kavtaradze, one of the leaders of the separatist Donetsk People's Republic told the Interfax news agency. "We simply don't have those kind of air defense systems."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has ordered a special investigation into the crash, as well as the downed Ukrainian AN-26 military cargo aircraft and the Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet downed this week.
"This is the third tragic incident in recent days after the AN-26 and SU-25 were shot down," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko noted a statement reported by the Journal. "We can't rule out that this plane was also shot down, but we underscore that the Ukrainian armed forces were not carrying out any actions to strike airborne targets."
As the investigation continues, however, the grim scene left behind in the aftermath of the crash was a reminder of the human toll.
Footage from the scene posted to YouTube was so graphic it had to be blurred.
The New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise, who was one of the first reporters to arrive on the scene, described it in part this way:
After trailing debris over a path several miles long, what remained of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 came to a rest in a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and ringed in Queen Anne's lace. Dogs barked in the distance and the air was filled with a bitter smell.
As dark descended on the field in eastern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, a light rain began to fall, casting a funereal pall over a scene of almost unspeakable horror. Incongruously, many of the bodies strewn about in the smoldering wreckage were largely intact.
A woman in a black sweater top lay on her back, blood streaming from her face, her left arm raised as if signaling someone. Another victim, naked except for a black bra, lay on the field, her grey hair mixing with the greeen grasses, one leg broken and her body torn.
A young boy, who looked to be around 10 years old, lay on his side in a red T-shirt that read "Don't Panic."