KUALA LUMPUR, July 18 (Reuters) - Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said on Friday that the national airline took no undue risk in flying over Ukraine, a route he stressed was approved by the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and widely used by other airlines.
ICAO closed the route after a Malaysia Airlines airliner was brought down in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard.
"We've flown this route for many years, it's safe and that's the reason why we are taking this route," Liow said at a news conference where reporters repeatedly questioned why the airline chose to fly over a war zone.
He said 15 out of 16 airlines in the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines flew the same route, as did many European carriers.
"In the hours before the incident, a number of other passenger aircraft from different carriers used the same route," he said. "There were no last minute instructions given to the pilots of MH17 to change the route of the flight."
Some international airlines, including Australia's Qantas Airways and South Korea's two major carriers, shifted the route taken by flights operating over Ukrainian air space months ago amid increasing tensions between Kiev and pro-Moscow rebels.
Liow also raised the number of Dutch passengers on the airliner to 173
There were 44 Malaysians on board, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians and nine Britons, the figures showed. The nationalities of 20 passengers had yet to be verified.
(Writing by Nick Macfie and Emily Kaiser)