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Ukraine government, rebels deny shooting down plane

KIEV, Ukraine — A Ukrainian official said a passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down Thursday as it flew over the country and plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village in eastern Ukraine.

Both the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russia separatists it is fighting in the region denied shooting down any plane. The fate of the 280 passengers and crew was not immediately known.

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Ukrainian President Petro 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, there 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.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said on Twitter there’s no confirmation that Thursday’s plane was shot down. He said he has instructed the country’s military to check.

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 Malaysia Airlines 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.

Related coverage:

Malaysian passenger plane crashes near Ukrainian border

Graphic: Known flight path of passenger plane

Ukraine government, rebels deny shooting down plane

Obama talks to Putin, asks aides for reports of plane crash

FAA warned about flying over Ukraine airspace in April

AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.
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