A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 298 people aboard exploded, crashed and burned on a flowered wheat field Thursday in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists, blown out of the sky at 33,000ft by an anti-aircraft missile. Everyone was killed. Ukraine has accused the pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian military intelligence, of firing Soviet era ground-to-air missile. The rebels have denied involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought it down. Although it’s unclear who was behind the apparent ground-launched missile, whatever the cause, the crashed plane, with a passenger manifest that spanned at least nine countries, has elevated the insurgency into an international crisis.
For the Malaysian Airlines, this is the second mass-casualty flight disaster with international intrigue within months. In March, another Boeing 777 with 283 passengers and 25 crew members from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur had disappeared mysteriously. The cause of the crash is yet to be known despite international investigations. Unlike the March tragedy, this time the site of the crash is known and Ukrainian rebels who control the area where the plane was brought down have agreed to allow investigators safe access to the site to gather evidence. A prompt, full and credible international investigation into the tragedy should be the first priority.
While ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to book, it is equally important to ensure the incident does not trigger a dangerous chain reaction. In 1988 when a US naval ship patrolling the Persian Gulf had shot down an Iranian jet, killing nearly 300 people, the terrorists had sought retribution by blowing a Pan Am jumbo jet that exploded over Lockerbie, killing 270. Back in 1962, the shooting of a U-2 spy plane of the US Air Force by the Soviet missiles had almost led to World War III. The US as well as Russia must redouble their efforts to resolve the crisis in Ukraine and not allow the latest aviation tragedy to spiral out into a bigger conflagration.