HRABOVE, Ukraine – Ukraine accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down a Malaysian jetliner with 298 people aboard Thursday, sharply escalating the crisis and threatening to draw both East and West deeper into the conflict. The rebels denied downing the aircraft.
American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought the plane down but were still working on who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border, a U.S. official said.
Bodies, debris and burning wreckage of the Boeing 777 were strewn over a field near the rebel-held village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, about 25 miles from the Russian border, where fighting has raged for months.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden described the plane as having been “blown out of the sky.”
The aircraft appeared to have broken up before impact, and there were large pieces of the plane that bore the red, white and blue markings of Malaysia Airlines – now familiar worldwide because of the carrier's still-missing jetliner from earlier this year.
There was no sign of any survivors from Flight 17, which took off shortly after noon Thursday from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 283 passengers, including three infants, and a crew of 15. 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.
President Petro Poroshenko called it an “act of terrorism” and demanded an international investigation. He insisted his forces did not shoot down the plane.
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 of them at the crash scene – say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 15 miles north of the site. Neither recording could be independently verified.
Earlier in the week, the rebels had claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military planes.
President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as Poroshenko. Britain asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine.
Later, Putin said Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash, but he didn't address the question of who might have shot it down and didn't accuse Ukraine of doing so.
“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 issued early today. “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.
Officials said more than half of those aboard the plane were Dutch citizens, along with passengers from Australia, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, the Philippines and Canada. The home countries of nearly 50 passengers were not confirmed.
The different nationalities of the dead would bring Ukraine's conflict to parts of the globe that were never touched by it before.
Ukraine's crisis began after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office in February by a protest movement among citizens angry about endemic corruption and seeking closer ties with the European Union.
Russia later annexed the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, and pro-Russians in the country's eastern regions began occupying government buildings and pressing for independence. Moscow denies Western charges it is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest.
Kenneth Quinn of the Flight Safety Foundation said an international coalition of countries should lead the investigation. Safety experts say they're concerned that because the plane crashed in an area of Ukraine that is in dispute, political considerations could affect the investigation.
The RIA-Novosti agency quoted rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying talks were underway with Ukrainian authorities on calling a truce for humanitarian reasons. He said international organizations would be allowed into the conflict-plagued region.
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,” aviation expert Norman Shanks said.
Within hours of Thursday's crash, several airlines said they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.
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. Rebels had bragged recently about having acquired Buk systems.
Sutyagin said Russia had supplied separatists with military hardware but had seen no evidence “of the transfer of that type of system from Russia.”
Poroshenko said his country's armed forces didn't shoot at any airborne targets.
“We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” he said.