SYDNEY - At least 27 Australians are believed to have died as a result of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, making it one of the worst airline disasters in Australian history.
The flight, bound for Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, was due to connect with onward flights to Melbourne and Perth on Friday morning. Multiple reports, citing unnamed intelligence officials, have suggested that the airliner with 298 people on board was shot down by a missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow. The separatists have denied the accusation.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott strongly condemned the perpetrators. He also labelled the incident a "crime" and suggested that Russia or Russian arms played a part,
The victims reportedly included 27-year-old Melbourne University student Elaine Teoh, Perth-based Nick Norris and his grandchildren, and Mr Albert and Ms Marie Rizk, a couple who had been holidaying in Europe for a month. An official list of the names is yet to be released.
Australia's parliament has observed a minute of silence, with the opposition joining the government in condemning the attack.
Mr Abbott said Australia would summon the Russian ambassador to ensure Russia's assistance with an official investigation.
Declaring that the perpetrators must be brought to justice, Mr Abbott told parliament: "As things stand this looks less like an accident than a crime. This is a grim day for our country and it's a grim day for our world."
MH17 was due to connect to onward flights to Perth and Melbourne, where a major international Aids conference was due to be held on the weekend. More than 100 conference delegates were aboard, including a Dutch researcher, Dr Joep Lange, a former president of the International Aids Society.
The society said in a statement: "At this incredibly sad and sensitive time the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy."
A prominent Australian Aids researcher, Professor David Cooper, told ABC Radio that the conference must go ahead because it is what Dr Lange would have wanted.
The shooting down of MH17 is believed to mark the third worst disaster in Australia's aviation history in terms of civilian casualties. Twenty-nine Australians died in Australian airline crashes in 1960 and 1950.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the eventual Australian death toll in the latest crash could be higher as the airline was still trying to ascertain the nationalities of several dozen passengers.
Mr Norris, a managing director of a change management consultancy company, was reportedly returning from a holiday and was travelling with some of his grandchildren on board MH17.
"Nick will be very very sadly missed," Mr Paul Ward, a fellow member of a Perth yachting club, told Radio 6PR.
Mr Rizk, a real estate agent, and his wife, were from Melbourne and had two children. They had been holidaying with friends.
"I'm just in shock," Mr Jack Ogilvie, a family friend, told The Daily Telegraph.
"He was one of the best blokes to have a beer with. We were actually looking after his son while they were away, making sure he was eating the right things, that sort of thing."
A couple of honeymooners, Ms Simone La Posta and Mr Juan Jovel, revealed they were due to be aboard but changed at the last minute.
"It's a bit surreal to think that one day later and I wouldn't be standing here," Ms La Posta told ABC News.