MELBOURNE - The International AIDS Society has confirmed that at least six high-level researchers and AIDS experts were among those killed on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed Thursday over volatile eastern Ukraine. The victims include the former president of the society, which is holding its annual week-long conference beginning Sunday in Melbourne. Officials say this blow will not deter their work.
International AIDS Society officials say the death of their colleagues comes as a serious blow on the eve of the annual conference.
The society’s president, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi spoke to reporters outside the conference hall Saturday; a cloudy, windswept Melbourne day.
“The International AIDS society has today confirmed the devastating news that at least six delegates travelling to the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne were on board, including our former president, Joep Lange, and his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren," she said. "The extent of our loss is hard to comprehend and express. Our colleagues were travelling because of their dedication to bringing an end to AIDS. We will honor their commitment and keep them in our hearts as we begin our program on Sunday.”
The other victims include Pim de Kuijer of STOP AIDS NOW!, Lucie van Mens and Maria Adriana de Schutter of AIDS Action Europe, and Glenn Thomas of the World Health Organization.
Incoming International Aids Society President Chris Beyer said organizers want to honor their fallen colleagues’ work. The theme of this year’s conference is “stepping up the pace” in the fight against AIDS. Beyer said this tragedy cannot slow them down.
“We discussed this of course, among ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, and what we agreed, and I think we had a real consensus, everyone agreed, that the colleagues we lost were people who committed their lives and their work to HIV/AIDS, and they would want this conference to go forward and that they would want us to have them in our hearts during the conference,” he said.
The crash has thrown a conflict across the world into sharp relief for Australians. Pro-Russian rebels have in recent months laid siege to eastern Ukraine, a Russian-speaking area, and in June shot down a Ukrainian military plane, killing all 49 people aboard.
Saturday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said again that he believes Russia-backed separatists shot down the Malaysian plane, possibly with Russian assistance and equipment.
Abbott also called for an independent international investigation into the crash, which killed all 298 people on board.