Ukraine accused pro-Russia separatists of shooting down a Malaysian jetliner with 298 people aboard, 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 Thursday 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.
The cockpit and one of the turbines lay at a distance of more than a half-mile from one another. Residents said the tail was about six miles farther away. Rescue workers planted sticks with white flags in spots where they found human remains.
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.
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.
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.
It was the second time a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Flight 370 disappeared in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.
“This is just too much,” said Cindy Tan, who was waiting at the airport for a friend on another flight. “I don’t know really why this happened to a MAS [Malaysia Airlines]plane again.”
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 were not confirmed.
“We owe it as well to the families of the dead to find out exactly what has happened and exactly who is responsible,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in Parliament today. “As things stand, this looks less like an accident than a crime. And if so, the perpetrators must be brought to justice.”
The different nationalities of the dead would bring Ukraine’s conflict to parts of the globe that were never touched by it before.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “horrified” by the crash, and said the United States was prepared to help with an international investigation.
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 area of Ukraine that is in dispute, political considerations could affect the investigation.