Two U.S. officials said Washington strongly suspected the
Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was downed by a sophisticated
surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by
There were no survivors from Thursday's crash, which left wreckage
and bodies scattered across miles of rebel-held territory near the
border with Russia.
Makeshift white flags marked where bodies lay in corn fields and
among the debris. Others, stripped bare by the force of the crash,
had been covered by polythene sheeting weighed down by stones, one
marked with a flower in remembrance.
The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for
international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has
killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed
president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea
peninsula a month later.
While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the
United States has been more aggressive than the European Union.
Analysts say the response of Germany and other EU powers to the
incident - possibly imposing more sanctions - could be crucial in
deciding the next phase of the standoff with Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an initial response, said it was
too early to decide on further sanctions before it was known exactly
what had happened to the plane.
Kiev and Moscow immediately blamed each other for the disaster,
triggering a new phase in their propaganda war.
The plane crashed about 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Russia
near the regional capital of Donetsk, an area that is a stronghold
of rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian government forces and
have brought down military aircraft.
Leaders of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic
denied any involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had
brought down the intercontinental flight.
Russia's Defence Ministry later pointed the finger at Ukrainian
ground forces, saying said it had picked up radar activity from a
Ukrainian missile system south of Donetsk when the airliner was
brought down, Russian media reported.
The Ukrainian security council said no missiles had been fired from
the armouries of its armed forces.
The Ukrainian government released recordings it said were of Russian
intelligence officers discussing the shooting down of a civilian
airliner by rebels who may have mistaken it for a Ukrainian military
The United States called for a ceasefire to allow access to the
crash site, as did Merkel.
"There are many indications that the plane was shot down, so we have
to take things very seriously," the German leader said.
Separatists told the Organization for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE), a security and rights agency, they would ensure safe
access to the scene for international experts.
An OSCE spokesman said the organisation, which has monitors in the
region, expected to reach the site later on Friday.
The plane's two black boxes - voice and data recorders - were
quickly recovered, but since the crash site was in rebel hands it
was unclear who would analyse them and whether they could in any
case determine who fired the missile.
Further complicating any investigation, local people were seen
removing pieces of wreckage as souvenirs. The condition of the metal
can indicate if it has been struck by a missile.
Reuters journalists saw burning and charred wreckage bearing the red
and blue Malaysia Airlines insignia and dozens of bodies in fields
near the village of Hrabove.
Ukraine said on Friday that up to 181 bodies had been found. The
airline said it was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew.
"I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of
a plane and then a bang," one local man told Reuters at Hrabove,
known in Russian as Grabovo. "Then I saw the plane hit the ground
and break in two. There was thick black smoke."
Ukraine has closed air space over the east of the country.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said it appeared the downing of the
jetliner was not an accident and that it apparently was "blown out
of the sky".
"While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this
incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is
fuelled by Russian support for the separatists, including through
arms, materiel, and training," White House spokesman Josh Earnest
said in a statement.
More than half of the dead, 173 people, were Dutch. Forty-four were
Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, nine British, four German,
four Belgian, three Filipino and one each from Canada, New Zealand
and Romania. All 15 crew were Malaysian.
Nationalities of the others aboard were unclear.
A number of those on board were travelling to an international AIDS
conference in Melbourne, including Joep Lange, an influential Dutch
"TRAGIC DAY, TRAGIC YEAR"
The loss of MH17 is the second devastating blow for Malaysia
Airlines this year, following the mysterious disappearance of Flight
MH370 in March, which vanished with 239 passengers and crew on board
on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
[to top of second column]
In Malaysia, there was a sense of disbelief that another airline
disaster could strike so soon.
"If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist
that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice," Malaysian
Prime Minister Najib Razak told a pre-dawn news conference in Kuala
"This is a tragic day, in what has already been a tragic year, for
The transport minister said the plane's route was
approved by international aviation officials.
Relatives gathered at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Akma Mohammad Noor said her sister Rahimah was coming home to mark
the Muslim festival of the end of Ramadan. "We were supposed to
celebrate," Noor said, weeping.
The Netherlands declared a day of national mourning.
Ukraine accused pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian military
intelligence officers, of firing a long-range, Soviet-era SA-11
Russian President Vladimir Putin - accused by the West of backing
the rebels in Ukraine - blamed Kiev for renewing its offensive
against rebels two weeks ago after a ceasefire failed to hold. The
Kremlin leader called it a "tragedy" but did not say who brought the
Boeing 777 down.
He later called for a "thorough and unbiased" investigation.
U.S. President Barack Obama said evidence from the crash must remain
in Ukraine so international investigators have a chance to look at
all of it, officials said.
The OSCE said a "contact group" of senior representatives from
Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE had held a video conference with the
separatists, who pledged to cooperate with Ukrainian authorities in
Kiev complained that separatists prevented Ukrainian officials from
reaching the site, where pro-Russian separatists said they had found
one of the "black box" recorders. Rescue workers recovered a second
recorder on Friday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called for a transparent
international investigation. The U.N. Security Council will discuss
the issue on Friday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who had stepped up an
offensive in the east this month, spoke to Obama and sought to rally
world opinion behind his cause.
"The external aggression against Ukraine is not just our problem but
a threat to European and global security," he said.
Russia, which Western powers accuse of trying to destabilise Ukraine
to maintain influence over its old Soviet empire, has accused Kiev's
leaders of mounting a fascist coup. It says it is holding troops in
readiness to protect Russian-speakers in the east - the same
rationale it used for taking over Crimea.
News of the disaster came as Obama was on the phone with Putin,
discussing a new round of economic sanctions that Washington and its
allies have imposed to try to force Putin to do more to curb the
revolt against the new government in Kiev.
Obama warned of further sanctions if Moscow did not change course in
Ukraine, the White House said.
After the downing of several Ukrainian military aircraft in the area
in recent months, including two this week, Kiev had accused Russian
forces of playing a direct role.
Separatists were quoted in Russian media last month saying they had
acquired a long-range SA-11 anti-aircraft system.
International air lanes had been open in the area, though only above
32,000 feet. The Malaysia plane was flying 1,000 feet higher,
(Additional reporting by Natalya Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Peter Graff
and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev, Tim Heritage, Vladimir Soldatkin,
Polina Devitt, Thomas Grove and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Thomas
Escritt in Amsterdam, Anuradha Raghu, Siva Govindasamy and Trinna
Leong in Kuala Lumpur, Jane Wardell and Matt Siegel in Sydney and
Phil Stewart, Warren Strobel, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Matt
Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Will
Waterman and Alastair Macdonald)
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