MELBOURNE - Some of the passengers on a Malaysian airliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine were headed to a major international AIDS conference in Melbourne, the Australian government said on Friday.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed that at least 27 Australians were among the 298 passengers and crew on the flight that the United States says was brought down by a surface to air missile.
"A number of people who were travelling to Malaysia for an international AIDS conference were also on board," Bishop told reporters.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital of 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 en route 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 (IAS), said in a statement.
As many as 100 conference attendees were on the doomed flight, Fairfax Media reported, including Joep Lange, a Dutch former president of the society who had spent 30 years researching and fighting the disease.
"The IAS has also heard reports that among the passengers was a former IAS president, Joep Lange, and if that is the case, then the HIV/AIDS movement has truly lost a giant," IAS said.
The week-long 20th International Aids Conference, with scheduled speakers including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, is due to begin on Sunday.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott pointed the finger at Russia over the disaster and said the perpetrators must be brought to justice.
"This is a grim day for our country and it's a grim day for our world. Malaysian Airlines MH17 has been shot down over the eastern Ukraine, it seems by Russian-backed rebels," Abbott told parliament.