MELBOURNE, July 18 (Reuters) - Some of the passengers on a Malaysian airliner downed over eastern Ukraine were headed to a major international AIDS conference in Melbourne, the Australian government said on Friday.
“A number of people who were travelling to Malaysia for an international AIDS conference were also on board,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told reporters.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was due to connect with a flight to Perth, in western Australia, Bishop said.
UNAIDS Director Michael Sidibe, who is in Melbourne, tweeted that many passengers were enroute to the conference.
“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,” the conference organisers, the International AIDS Society, said in a statement.
The week-long 20th International Aids Conference, with scheduled speakers including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, is due to begin on Sunday.
Ukrainian authorities have accused “terrorists” - militants fighting to unite eastern Ukraine with Russia - of shooting down the Boeing 777-200. The rebels denied responsibility.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that if the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine was a deliberate act, then “it is an unspeakable crime” and the perpetrators must be swiftly brought to justice.
Bishop confirmed that at least 27 Australians were among the 298 passengers and crew on the flight. (Reporting By Sonali Paul and Jane Wardell; Editing by Robert Birsel)