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Malaysian Jet Shootdown Joins Long List of Civilian-Military Air Disasters

  • VOA News

The unfolding story of the Malaysian passenger jet shot down last week by an anti-aircraft missile over Ukraine joins a substantial list of similar military-civilian air disasters that have killed hundreds of non-combatants through decades of aviation history.

In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines jet, killing 269 people aboard, when the aircraft strayed into its airspace and was thought to be an enemy intruder. A few years later, the U.S. warship Vincennes accidentally killed 290 people when it downed an Iranian passenger plane after mistaking it for a fighter jet.

Robert Latiff, a retired U.S. Air Force major general and expert on jet navigational systems, told VOA that "when you have civilian people operating in the vicinity of a combat zone, it's likely to happen."

Devastating 'negligence'

Ukrainian government intercepts of social media comments made by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shortly after the Malaysia Airlines jet was struck seem to suggest that the rebels thought they had fired the missile at one of Kyiv's military cargo planes and downed it. But the Malaysian passenger jet was hit, killing all 298 aboard.

Latiff, who now teaches at George Mason University outside Washington, said the inexperience of the insurgents in operating the missile battery was telling.

"What I think happened was that we had a group of people who had a very sophisticated weapon system, provided to them by whomever, who didn't really know how to use it properly and didn't take advantage of other information that might have been available to them," said Latiff.

He said that with proper training and operation of the anti-aircraft missiles, military personnel would be able to electronically determine the difference between a civilian aircraft flying above a war zone and an enemy plane.

"I think it was a matter of poor training, people who were itchy to be in combat ... and may in fact have thought it was a cargo plane. But they didn't check and they should have," he said.

He called the separatists' actions "negligent," not "purposeful."

Numerous mishaps

The mystery surrounding a 1980 missile attack on an Itavia Airlines jet remains unsolved to this day. That plane crashed into the Tyrhennian Sea off Italy, killing all 81 aboard, but who fired the missile is still being debated. In 1955, an El Al flight wandered into Bulgarian air space and was shot down by fighter jets, killing 58.

In 1973, Israeli warplanes shot down a Libyan Arab Airlines jet that flew over the Sinai Peninsula and failed to heed warning shots. All but five of the 113 people on board were killed.

And last week's military-civilian air disaster in Ukraine is not the first there. In 2001, the Ukrainian military acknowledged that it shot down a Russian passenger jet, killing 76, while it was conducting exercises by firing missiles at drones. One of them locked on the Russian airliner after it sped past the destroyed drone.

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