SYDNEY — Several passengers on board a Malaysian jetliner shot down over Ukraine were world-renowned researchers heading to an international AIDS conference in Australia, officials said today.
"A number of people" on board the Boeing 777 were en route to the southern Australian city of Melbourne to attend the 20th International AIDS conference, which starts Sunday, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop told reporters in Brisbane.
The plane, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, crashed Thursday with 298 people on board. American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought the aircraft down but it was not yet clear who fired the missile.
The plane was scheduled to continue flying to the Australian city of Perth after stopping in Kuala Lumpur, Bishop said.
Among the passengers was former president of the International AIDS Society Joep Lange, a well-known HIV researcher from the Netherlands, opposition leader Bill Shorten said in parliament.
"There are Australians who would have planned to be at the airport tomorrow night to greet friends and family — amongst them, some of the world's leading AIDS experts," Shorten said. "The cost of this will be felt in many parts of the world."
Chris Beyrer, president-elect of the International AIDS Society, said if reports of Lange's death were true, "then the HIV/AIDS movement has truly lost a giant."
Nobel laureate Dr. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and president of the International AIDS Society, paid tribute to Lange in speech in the Australian capital, Canberra.
"Joep was a wonderful person — a great professional … but more than that, a wonderful human being," she said.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton will deliver an address at next week's AIDS conference, which brings together thousands of scientists and activists from around the world to discuss the latest developments in HIV and AIDS research.