MH17 crash timeline

WRECKAGE: Pieces of MH17 lie strewn about a wide area.
WRECKAGE: Pieces of MH17 lie strewn about a wide area.

How the tragedy of flight MH17 unfolded:

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, with 298 people on board, left Amsterdam bound for Kuala Lumpur at 12.15pm local time Thursday (10.15pm NZT), 15 minutes late.

Contact is lost with the Boeing 777-200 at 2.15pm GMT (2.15am NZT) in Ukrainian airspace.

Malaysia Airlines tweeted it had lost contact with the plane. "The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace," it said. "More details to follow."

The Russian Interfax news agency was among the first to alert the world to the disaster, quoting an aviation source. The plane is reported to have come down in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

By about 4.30am NZT images and footage from the scene, many showing bodies of passengers, are circulating on the internet.

Around 5.30am NZT Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko confirmed it was the third aircraft to have come down in recent days. The other two were military aircraft.

Ukrainian officials were claiming the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched by pro-Russian separatists. It had been flying at 10,000 metres when hit. The missile was said to have been fired from a Russian-built Buk launcher.

By 8am an apparent conversation had come to light between two militants identified as "Major" and "Greek" who were heard discussing the discovery that the plane was a civilian aircraft.

Social media posts by the insurgents - most hastily removed - suggested the rebels thought they had shot down a Ukrainian army plane before realising their mistake.

US intelligence sources were also confirming that a missile had brought the plane down.

By 9am Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was demanding that if the plane had been shot down the perpetrators must be brought to justice. 

Also around this time NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully said officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade were following up on indications at least one New Zealand passport holder, and other passengers with New Zealand connections, were on the plane.

Russian President Vladimir Putin started pinning the blame for the tragedy on Ukraine for renewing its offensive against the rebels two weeks ago after a ceasefire failed to hold. He called it a tragedy but did not say who brought the plane down.

It also started to emerge that some passengers on the plane were high-profile AIDS researchers and scientists on the way to Melbourne for a major conference.

Reports started identifying the prime suspect behind the shooting down of the plane as Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer who had shot his own troops for insubordination. 

Confusion grew during the day about the whereabouts of the black box flight recorder, with reports pro-Russian separatists had found one and it was on its way to Moscow.

Around 3.30pm Foreign Affairs Minister McCully confirmed a New Zealand woman who lived in Australia was among those who died, as was another woman who travelled on a British passport but lived in this country.