ROZSYPNE, Ukraine – A Malaysian jetliner shot from the sky by what U.S. intelligence officials believe was a surface-to-air missile scattered wreckage and bodies across the Ukrainian countryside, leaving investigators scrambling Friday to figure out how that could have happened.
Rescue workers, policemen and even off-duty coal miners were combing a sprawling area in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border where the Malaysian plane ended up in burning pieces Thursday, killing all 298 aboard.
For the second time in five months, a Malaysia Airlines plane filled with international passengers and crew did not reach its destination – an unthinkable coincidence.
The cause of Thursday’s crash was not immediately clear but the area has seen heavy fighting recently between government troops and pro-Russia separatists, with the rebels bragging about shooting down two Ukrainian military jets in the region Wednesday, just a day earlier.
Ukraine accused the rebels of shooting down the Malaysia Airways plane. The rebels denied it. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the downing, saying it was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions – but did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and not address the key question of whether Russia itself gave the rebels such a powerful missile.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the rebels, a charge that Moscow denies.
American intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought the plane down but were still working on who fired it.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it an “act of terrorism” and demanded an international investigation. He insisted his forces did not shoot down the plane.
Amid the tensions, Russia’s Federal Aviation Agency said Friday that Russia airlines have suspended transit flights over Ukraine.
For the first day in months, there was no sign of fighting in the area, but it was not immediately clear if a formal cease-fire had been called.
The crash site itself was sprawling. Large chunks of the Boeing 777 that bore the airline’s red, white and blue markings lay strewn over a field. The cockpit and one turbines lay a over a half-mile apart, and residents said the tail landed about 6 miles away, indicating the aircraft most likely broke up before hitting the ground.
About 70 coal miners, dressed in overalls and covered with soot, joined the rescue effort early Friday near the rebel-held village of Rozsypne in the separatist Donetsk region, about 25 miles from the Russian border.
At least four bodies were seen in the streets of the village, and an Associated Press journalist saw bodies and body parts strewn across a sunflower field outside Rozsypne.
One rebel militiamen in the village told The Associated Press that he had seen a part of the fuselage demonstrating evidence of having been struck by a projectile.
Kenneth Quinn of the Flight Safety Foundation said an international coalition of countries should lead the investigation. The Unites States has offered to help.
But the actual investigation is likely to be severely complicated by the still-tense security situation. The road from Donetsk, the largest city in the region, to the site of the crash was separated by five rebel checkpoints Friday. At every checkpoint, militiamen ran document checks.
Malaysia’s prime minister said there was no distress call before the plane went down and that the flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
More than half the passengers on board – 154 – were Dutch citizens, with 43 from Malaysia, including the 15 crew members. Another 27 were Australians and 12 from Indonesia. The victims included three infants.
Passengers on the plane included a large contingent of world-renowned AIDS researchers and activists headed to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. News of their deaths sparked an outpouring of grief across the global scientific community.
In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of those aboard the jet came to the international airport.
A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming to visit the family for the first time in five years. “She called me just before she boarded the plane and said, 'See you soon,”’ Akmar said.
Counselors were meeting with a few family members in the airport, sealed off from a horde of journalists. One woman emerged in tears.
Ukraine’s security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that showed rebels were responsible. In the first call, the security services said, rebel commander Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence officer that rebel forces shot down a plane. In the second, two rebel fighters – one at the crash scene – say the rocket attack was carried out by insurgents about 15 miles north of the site.
Neither recording could be independently verified.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Donetsk rebel spokesman Sergey Kavtaradze as denying that the intercepted phone conversations were genuine.
President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and spoke by phone with Putin as well as Poroshenko. Britain asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine.
Putin said Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash.
“This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin statement Friday. “And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”
At the United Nations, Ukrainian Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev told the AP that Russia gave the separatists a sophisticated missile system and thus Moscow bears responsibility, along with the rebels.
Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to Thursday’s crash, but many carriers, including cash-strapped Malaysia Airlines, had continued to use the route because “it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money,” said aviation expert Norman Shanks.
Within hours of Thursday’s crash, several airlines said they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.
A U.S. official said American intelligence authorities believe the plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile but were still working to determine additional details about the crash, including who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukraine side of the border.
But American intelligence assessments suggest it is more likely pro-Russian separatists or the Russians rather than Ukrainian government forces shot down the plane, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at about 33,000 feet when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 72,000 feet. He said only that his information was based on “intelligence.”
Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have SA-17 missile systems – also known as Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.
Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, said his country’s armed forces didn’t shoot at any airborne targets.
Rebels had bragged recently about having acquired Buk systems. Earlier Thursday, AP journalists saw a launcher that looked like a Buk missile system near the eastern town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
Sutyagin said Russia had supplied separatists with military hardware but had seen no evidence “of the transfer of that type of system from Russia.”
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told the AP he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down, but gave no proof.
Peter Leonard reported from Kiev with contributions from an Associated Press reporter in Hrabove, Ukraine. Also contributing were AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York; Jill Lawless and Matthew Knight in London; Laura Mills and Jim Heintz in Moscow; Lolita C. Baldor and Darlene Superville in Washington; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; and Eileen Ng and Satish Cheney in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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