UPDATE — Friday, 12:03pm ET: US President Barack Obama confirmed in a statement today that at least one US citizen has been killed in the plane crash. Obama added that credible evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from an area controlled by pro-Russia rebels and called for an investigation to determine those responsible.
A commercial airplane carrying almost 300 people crashed in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, just 20 miles from the border with Russia. Ukraine's Interior Ministry advisor said all passengers on board have been killed.
Hours after the crash, dozens of armed rebels patrolled the area and controlled traffic flow along a dusty village backroad leading to the crash site, where smoke fumes and the smell of aviation fuel filled the air.
"It was like ground zero, total devastation," a local firefighter told VICE News. "There are no survivors."
The Boeing 777 — the same model as the Malaysia Airlines plane that went missing earlier this year — traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was carrying 298 people. It crashed near the Ukrainian town of Grabovo, north of Torez, in the Donetsk region, shortly before it was to enter Russian airspace. Malaysia Airlines confirmed they lost contact of the plane when it was over Ukrainian airspace and that its last known location was somewhere over Donetsk.
Malaysia Airlines has lost contact of MH17 from Amsterdam. The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow.
— Malaysia Airlines (@MAS)July 17, 2014
Working side-by-side with emergency services, rebels clad in military fatigues sifted through the ash and charred plane wreckage. According to some local reports, the rebels now claim that they are in possession of the black box that contains vital information about the final moments of the flight.
Deputy Prime Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic Andrei Purgin told Russian news agency Interfax that militants were on the site and planning to hand over the recordings of the plane to Moscow. "Of course, we most likely will give them to the Interstate Aviation Committee, to Moscow," Purgin said. "High-level experts, who will be able to determine exactly the reason of the catastrophe, work there."
Speaking to VICE News at the scene, a pro-Russia gunman named Yuri refused to confirm or deny reports that the rebels had taken control of the area. He said that they were there to "protect" and keep the "order."
According to Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine's Interior Minister, and local reports, the plane was shot down by pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine, though rebels have denied involvement in the crash and have blamed it on the Ukrainian military. There were reportedly no Russian citizens aboard the flight. Gerashchenko said on his Facebook page that the rebels used a Buk anti-aircraft system to shoot down the plane, which was flying at about 32,000 feet.
A Buk anti-aircraft system is a sophisticated surface-to-air missile that rebels in eastern Ukraine acquired in June, according to Itar-Tass. US intelligence officials have confirmed that a surface-to-air missile was used, but have not determined who shot it.
Ukraine's President Petro Peroshenko said the Ukrainian military did not shoot down the plane.
"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."
Peroshenko added that the incident was "a terrorist act."
Russia's Defense Ministry denied accusations that pro-Russia rebels were responsible for the crash, calling the claims "absurd."
Eastern Ukrainian rebels shot down Malaysian Airlines plane - Ukraine Interior Ministry adviser Herashenko
— Maxim Eristavi (@MaximEristavi)July 17, 2014
Smoke reportedly rising from the crashed plane.
The Malaysian Prime Minister said that the government was opening an investigation into what happened.
I am shocked by reports that an MH plane crashed. We are launching an immediate investigation.
— Mohd Najib Tun Razak (@NajibRazak)July 17, 2014
Additional reporting by Harriet Salem.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928
Photo via Wikimedia