(AFP) Malaysia’s premier expressed “shock” at reports a Malaysia Airlines flight may have been shot down over troubled eastern Ukraine as his nation braced for another wrenching air tragedy just months after MH370 disappeared.
Tearful relatives began gathering at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport in the early hours of Friday morning, many beside themselves with grief as they endured an agonising wait.
One woman, Akmar Mohd Noor, said her sister was on board flight MH17, adding that she rushed to the airport as soon as she saw the news on television.
The crash is a fresh blow to the flag carrier which, along with the Malaysian government, is still struggling to provide answers to the disappearance of flight MH370.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was seen arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport to meet with officials on the tragedy.
Malaysia Airlines said the Boeing 777 passenger plane was carrying 280 people and 15 crew.
– A nation already reeling –
The flag carrier said the aircraft was travelling from Amsterdam on an overnight flight to Kuala Lumpur with 280 passengers and 15 crew.
It had been expected in the Malaysian capital at 6:10 am on Friday (2210 GMT Thursday). It gave no further information on what might have happened to the plane.
Some relatives at the airport expressed anger that they still had not been briefed by Malaysia Airlines officials.
Another ethnic Indian man who said his sister, brother-in-law and their two-year-old baby were believed to be on the flight said: “We just want to have the name list from MAS.”
Government officials were expected to hold a press conference early Friday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the jet crashed over rebel-held eastern Ukraine and may have been shot down.
Regional officials in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine confirmed the plane had come down near the town of Shaktarsk.
– Rebel claims –
There were conflicting claims of responsibility after the shocking new development in crisis-torn Ukraine where fighting between separatists and the Western-backed government has claimed over 600 lives.
A social media site attributed to a top Ukrainian rebel commander said insurgents had shot down an army transporter at the location where the plane came down near the Russian border.
The comments suggest the separatists had shot down the aircraft by mistake, believing it was a large Ukrainian army transport plane.
The crash is the second time Malaysia Airlines has lost a jet this year. Flight MH370 went missing with 239 passengers and crew on board and is now believed to have diverted off its flight path and crashed in the remote Indian Ocean.
No trace of the plane has yet been found.
Kiev earlier accused Russia of downing a Ukrainian military plane on a mission over the east of the country, stoking tensions in the growing conflict on the edges of Europe.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, who was on a China visit, tweeted: “I’m taking the first flight back from Beijing to be on top of #MH17. Pray and hope please.”
Liow took over last month in a cabinet shuffle from then-acting transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who gained world notoriety with his daily briefings on the MH370 saga.
Hishammuddin remains defence minister.