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WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. official said Thursday that American intelligence authorities now believe a surface-to-air missile took down the Malaysian passenger plane as it flew over eastern Ukraine.
The official said the U.S. was still working to determine additional details about the crash, including who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukraine side of the border. But the official said U.S. intelligence assessments suggest it is more likely pro-Russian separatists or the Russians rather than Ukrainian government forces shot down the plane.
The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. has sophisticated technologies that can detect missile launches, including the identification of heat from the rocket engine.
The plane was carrying 295 people. The Ukraine government and pro-Russian separatists who are fighting in that region have both denied responsibility for the strike.
Each side, however, has blamed the other.
As plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village of Grabovo in eastern Ukraine, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the crash site 25 miles from the Russian border.
The plane appeared to have broken up before impact and the burning wreckage — which included body parts and the belongings of passengers — was scattered over a wide area.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash.
The village of Grabovo is currently under the control of the separatists and the area has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days.
Malaysia Airlines confirmed that it received notification from Ukrainian aviation authorities that it had lost contact with flight MH17 at 1415 GMT some 20 miles from Tamak waypoint, approximately 30 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border.
It said the plane had 280 passengers and 15 crew aboard a Boeing 777 that left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. and was to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. Friday.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 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 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 The Associated Press 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, they had no fighters capable of operating it.
A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
It was the second time that a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.
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.
If the plane was shot down, it would be the fourth commercial airliner to face such a fate. The previous three were:
— April 20, 1978: Korean Airlines Flight 902, which diverted from its planned course on a flight from Paris to Seoul and strayed over the Soviet Union. After being fired upon by an interceptor aircraft, the crew made a forced landing at night on the surface of a frozen lake. Two of the 97 passengers were killed by the hostile fire.
— Sept. 1, 1983: Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down by at least one Soviet air-to-air missile after the 747 had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 240 passengers and 29 crew were killed.
— July 3, 1988: Iran Air Flight 655 Aircraft was shot down by a surface to air missile from the American naval vessel U.S.S. Vincennes. All 16 crew and 274 passengers were killed.