THE downing of flight MH17 by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine was called a “global tragedy” by Barack Obama yesterday, as the identities of the victims became known – they included more than 100 experts in Aids and HIV research who were headed to a conference in Australia.
Among them was Dutch expert Dr Joep Lange, who was at the forefront of the fight against the disease for 30 years.
The International Aids Society said it had “truly lost a giant”.
A total of 108 delegates to the 20th International Aids Conference in Melbourne were reportedly on Flight MH17 when it came down en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur over Ukraine on Thursday afternoon. The Boeing 777 was hit by a surface-to-air missile fired from the Donetsk region, which is currently held by pro-Russian separatist rebels.
There were 80 children among the 298 killed, and it was confirmed yesterday that ten Britons had been on board.
Among them were Newcastle United fans Liam Sweeney, 28, and John Alder, who was in his 60s, who were travelling to see their team play in New Zealand.
Barry Sweeney, Liam’s father, found out his son was among the victims on the internet and said he spent all Thursday night frantically trying to get through on emergency lines.
Richard Mayne, 20, a Leeds University student and keen sportsman, was on his way to Perth, Australia, and had picked the flight specifically because he was diabetic and needed a stop- over.
The human cost unfolded as political opinion continued to harden against Russia over its role in the Ukrainian conflict, and it was condemned for failing to restrain the separatist rebels.
Mr Obama, the US president, described the downing of the plane as an “outrage of unspeakable proportions” and paid tribute to the victims.
He singled out the scientists, saying: “These were men and women who had dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others, and they were taken from us in a senseless act of violence.
“In this world today, we shouldn’t forget that, in the midst of conflict and killing, there are people like these, people who are focused on what can be built rather than what can be destroyed, people that define themselves not by what makes them different from other people but by the humanity that we hold in common. It’s important for us to lift them up and to affirm their lives. And it’s time for us to heed their example.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations said the downing of the Malaysian airliner would not have happened if Russia did not provide sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to separatist rebels.
Yuriy Sergeyev told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that communications and intercepts, photos and videos indicated the rebels had at least two of the Buk missile systems believed to have been used.
The British ambassador to the UN, Mark Lyall Grant, condemned the downing of the plane and criticised Russia for the kind of support it had reportedly given the separatist rebels.
Throughout yesterday, the world of HIV and Aids research was trying to come to terms with the loss of so many of its number. In particular, tributes were paid to Dr Lange for his tireless leadership in the battle against the disease. Professor Richard Boyd, director of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories, said: “This will have ramifications globally because whenever you lose a leader in any field, it has an impact. That knowledge is irreplaceable.
“We’ve lost global leaders and also some bright young people who were coming through. It’s a gut-wrenching loss. I was involved in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York and it brings back that level of catastrophe.”
Trevor Stratton, an HIV/Aids consultant, said: “The cure for Aids may have been on that plane – we just don’t know. You can’t just help but wonder about the kind of expertise on that plane.”
Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a former executive director of the United Nations Aids programme, UNaids, said: “Global health and the Aids response have lost one of their great leaders.
“Joep Lange was one of the most creative Aids researchers, a humanist and tireless organiser, dedicated to his patients and to defeating Aids in the poorest countries.”
Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s biggest research charity, added: “I am deeply saddened that Joep Lange, his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren, and other colleagues from the World Health Organisation and the HIV research community are reported to be among those killed in the MH17 disaster.
“Joep was a great clinical scientist and a great friend of the Wellcome Trust who has long been a valued adviser. He was also a personal friend. He is a great loss to global health research.
“The thoughts and sympathies of all of us at the trust are with his family and other families who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.”
Dr Lange was a former president of the International Aids Society and pioneered the availability of affordable HIV treatments across Africa and Asia to prevent transmission of the virus from mothers to their babies. He has authored more than 350 scientific papers.
UNaids said it feared “some of the finest academics, healthcare workers and activists in the Aids response may have perished” on the plane.
“Professor Lange was a leading light in the field since the early days of HIV and worked unceasingly to widen access to anti-retroviral medicines around the world,” it added.
Dr Rosemary Gillespie, chief executive of the UK’s Terrence Higgins Trust HIV/Aids charity, said: “For the HIV community to lose so many of our leading lights is a cruel blow, and one we will feel for some time.”
Dr Jennifer Cohn of Doctors Without Borders said the Aids community would honour the loss of their fellow researchers by “re-doubling [their] commitment and efforts to address the HIV pandemic”.
The Melbourne conference organisers said last night that the event would start as planned tomorrow, although “there will be many empty spots”.
Former US president Bill Clinton will deliver an address at the event, which brings together thousands of scientists and activists to discuss the latest developments in HIV and Aids research.
In a statement, the organisers said: “In recognition of our colleagues’ dedication to the fight against HIV/Aids, the conference will go ahead as planned and will include opportunities to reflect and remember those we have lost.”
Tributes to British victims as families are left devastated
BY last night six of the ten Britons confirmed dead had been named, with tributes flooding in to those who lost their lives on a routine flight after embarking on work trips, holidays or adventure.
• John Alder, in his 60s, was a life-long Newcastle United supporter who was travelling to see the club play on a pre-season tour of New Zealand. Barely missing a match in 50 years, the Gateshead man was known as the Undertaker “because he always wore a black suit and white shirt to every match”, his neighbour said. Margaret Bambra, 66, added: “He was a lovely guy, never bothering anyone. He was Newcastle-mad. I really cannot believe it – it’s totally devastating. He did not deserve this.”
• Liam Sweeney, 28, was also travelling to see Newcastle United’s pre-season tour and would have been known to many fans during his time volunteering as a steward on supporters’ buses to away games, the club said.
Tragically, his father Barry found out his son was among the victims on the Newcastle United Fan Club website and spent all Thursday night trying to get through on “emergency lines”.
He said: “I just tried to keep at it all night hoping, to be honest with you, that one of these nine Britons wasn’t my son.
“Horrible for somebody else, but you tend to think of your own when something’s happened.
“Probably rather it was me sitting on the plane and not him, because he was only 28.
“I’m finding it hard to grieve at the moment, because I don’t mind speaking to everybody because everybody wants to know what a great lad he was.
“I just want everybody to know what a tremendous bloke he is.”
Mr Sweeney said his wife, who is suffering from a terminal illness, “cannot bear it”.
• Glenn Thomas, 49, a former BBC journalist, had been a media officer for the World Health Organisation in Geneva for more than a decade and was travelling to an international Aids conference in Australia. Originally from Blackpool, he leaves behind his partner Claudio and sister Tracey.
WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said: “We have lost a wonderful person and a great professional. Our hearts are broken. We are all in shock.”
• Richard Mayne, 20, was originally from Leicester but was studying maths and finance at Leeds University and had recently returned from a charity fund-raising trip to Mount Everest in March. He was a member of the university’s rugby union club and Raise and Give society. John Wood, headmaster at his former school, the Dixie Grammar School, said: “Richard had a great thirst for life and he wanted to make the world a better place. It is tragic that his life has been cut short, especially under these circumstances – he had such a great future ahead of him.”
• Ben Pocock, of Keynsham, Bristol, was a second-year international business student at Loughborough University. He was flying out to begin a professional placement and to study at the University of Western Australia in Perth as part of his third year, his family said. They said: “He was a gifted academic, talented athlete but more importantly a warm, caring, fun loving son and brother who had an extremely bright future ahead of him.
“Ben is going to be terribly missed not only by his family but by the wider Keynsham community where he made so many long lasting friends.”
A Loughborough University spokeswoman said: “Ben was an excellent student and on course to gain a first class degree. He was also a fine athlete, who played on the university athletic union’s Ultimate Frisbee team.”
• Cameron Dalziel, 43, is understood to be South African but travelling on a British passport. The helicopter rescue pilot had moved to Malaysia last October with his wife Reine, and their two sons Sheldon, 14, and four year-old Cruz, to take up a job with CHC Helicopters. It is understood Mr Dalziel had been training in the Netherlands and was returning home.
Mr Dalziel’s brother-in-law, Shane Hattingh, said his sister Reine was so traumatised she has not been able to answer phone calls from relatives.
He said: “She is basically alone there. So she couldn’t even talk to me. It’s crazy, the kids are going to be absolutely shattered.”
On his LinkedIn profile, Mr Dalziel describes himself as a “manager of day-to-day offshore support to Shell and Petronas, transporting rig crew out to rigs as well as 24 hr emergency operations”.