A Malaysian Airlines plane with 295 people on board has crashed in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine amid claims it was shot down.
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 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Russian border.
The passenger list has not yet been released, but France’s foreign minister said four French nationals were on-board.
The crash comes just four months after the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which remains missing.
Ukraine’s Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko was quoted as saying the plane had been shot down by a ground-to-air missile, and that 280 passengers and 15 crew had been killed.
He told the Wall Street Journal pro-Russia rebels had set up a ground-to-missile battery near the Russian border by the town of Snizhne.
“They clearly thought that it was a military transport plane that they were shooting at,” he said. “They were the ones who did this.”
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.
The airline said the plane was flight MH17 – a Boeing 777-200 travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Shocking photos of bodies among the wreckage have been posted on Twitter.
“Malaysia Airlines confirms it received notification from Ukrainian ATC that it had lost contact with flight MH17 at 1415 (GMT) at 30km from Tamak waypoint, approximately 50km from the Russia-Ukraine border,” the carrier said in a statement on Facebook.
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.
In a statement, Mr Poroshenko said the plane “disappeared from radar screens”.
“In recent days, this is the third tragic accident after the Russian territory were downed aircraft AN-26 and SU-25 Armed Forces of Ukraine. We do not exclude that this aircraft was also shot down, and stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not commit any action to defeat the purposes of the air,” Mr Poroshenko added.
A defence expert told the BBC that shooting down a plane at that height would have required a long-range surface-to-air missile — possibly guided by radar.
Oleg Tsarev, one of the leaders of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, told Time that the rebels did not shoot the plane down.
“We don’t have weapons that can take down a plane from that altitude,” he said, minutes after news of the crash broke.
There are reports that rebels did have an anti-craft military station.
“The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” the Kremlin’s main television network Vesti announced.
Since then there has been regular downings of Ukrainian aircraft including an AN-26 military transport plane shot down on Monday. Its four crew members were taking hostage after they ejected from the aircraft, rebels later confirmed.
A raft of global airlines, including Air France, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa, swiftly responded to the disaster by saying they had been avoiding airspace over eastern Ukraine due to safety concerns.
They were further advised on Thursday to avoid Ukraine’s airspace.
In France, a statement by junior transport minister Frederic Cuvillier said he had advised “French airlines to avoid Ukraine’s air space as long as the reasons behind this catastrophe are not known.”
Flight MH17 departed Amsterdam at 12:15pm (Amsterdam local time) on Thursday and was scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 6:10am (Malaysia local time) the next day.
The plane however disappeared from radar when flying at 10,000 metres cruising altitude, Interfax-Ukraine reports.
The plane’s black box has reportedly been recovered from the wreckage by Pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, according to Interfax.
But the head of Ukrainian Emergency Situations has since reportedly claimed that search efforts at the scene are being hampered by “armed terrorists”.
Ukraine earlier this week accused Russia of shooting down one of their fighter jets, which Moscow also denied.
Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak said he was “shocked” by the reports. “We are launching an immediate investigation,” he said.
The Kremlin said US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had discussed the crash over the phone.
At a later press conference Mr Obama said “it looks like it may be a terrible tragedy”.
“Right now we’re trying to determine whether there were American citizens on board, that is our first priority,” Mr Obama said.
He said US would offer any assistance it could to determine what happened.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the passengers, wherever they call home.”