Washington: President Barack Obama said Friday that the United States believed the Malaysia Airlines jetliner felled over eastern Ukraine had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile from an area inside Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists. He demanded a prompt international inquiry as signs emerged that separatists were impeding an assessment of the crash site by outside monitors. (Barack Obama Reaches out to Global Leaders for Investigation on Malaysia Airlines MH17)
Obama's remarks at the White House were the strongest public suggestions yet from the United States of who was responsible for the downing of the plane, which exploded, crashed and burned on Thursday on farmland in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. (Downing of Jet Exposes Defects of Flight Precautions Over Ukraine)
Obama said the loss of life was an "outrage of unspeakable proportions" and a "global tragedy." He vowed to investigate exactly what had happened to end the lives of "men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis" in the region. He also said that
at least one American was among the dead. (Malaysia Airlines Crash: Understanding a Disaster)
"We are going to make sure the truth is out," Obama said, referring to what he described as a trove of misinformation that had already shrouded the plane crash.
"We don't have time for propaganda," he said. "We don't have time for games."
The president said the violence in the region must not obstruct an independent investigation of the plane's destruction, and he called on Russia, Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists to agree to an immediate cease-fire. "Evidence must not be tampered with," Obama said.
(MH17 Passenger Expresses Flight Jitters in Video)
"Investigators need to access the crash site. And the solemn task of returning those who were lost onboard the plane to their loved ones needs to go forward immediately."
While separatists guarding the crash site allowed some Ukrainian government rescue teams to enter and begin collecting bodies, they were less cooperative with a team of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who wanted to secure a safe route for the investigation and salvaging operations. (Australian Family Hit By Both MH17, MH370 Tragedies)
Reuters quoted Thomas Greminger, chairman of the OSCE's permanent council in Vienna, as saying that armed separatists had prevented the monitors from gaining full access to the site.
"In the current circumstances, they were not able to help securing this corridor that would allow access for those that would want to investigate," he was quoted as saying.
There were reports that some separatists had fired at the monitors, but the OSCE said in a Twitter message that those claims were untrue.
Obama spoke after Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told an emergency Security Council meeting on the Ukraine conflict that there was "credible evidence" that pro-Russia separatists and their Russian associates in eastern Ukraine were responsible for the crash.
The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 - Flight 17, from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - was at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet on a commonly used air route over eastern Ukraine when it was struck Thursday.
Both Russia and the separatist groups deny any responsibility, and some rebel leaders suggest that Ukraine's armed forces may have shot down the plane. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has implicitly blamed Ukraine's government, saying it created the conditions for the separatist uprising that has escalated into a major crisis. But Putin has not denied that a Russian-made weapon may have destroyed the aircraft.
Obama resisted blaming Putin personally, saying that the United States did not know who had fired the missile. But he made clear that he held the Russians responsible for failing to stop the violence that made the downing possible. (The Missile That Reportedly Shot Down Malaysia Airlines Plane: 10 Facts)
"We know that they are heavily armed and they are trained," Obama said. "That is not an accident. That is happening because of Russian support." He said it was "not possible for these separatists to be functioning the way they are" without Russian support.
He said that the loss of the plane was a direct result of the fighting in the region, and that the violence had been "facilitated in large part because of Russian support."
Obama said Putin could decide not to allow heavy armaments or troops to flow across the border from Russia into Ukraine. If Putin does that, he said, "then it will stop."
In her remarks at the U.N., Power said, "We assess Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 carrying these 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine." She said the United States could not "rule out technical assistance by Russian personnel" in operating the system.
Asked later to respond to the U.S. accusations of Russian support, Vitaly I. Churkin, Russia's U.N. ambassador, declined to comment.
The 15-member Security Council called unanimously for a "full, thorough and independent international investigation" into the cause of the crash. Jeffrey D. Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs, told the council that 80 children were among the dead.
Power's assertions were echoed by two senior Defense Department officials, who said the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that an SA-11 missile, fired from an area near the Russia border, had downed the plane.
That conclusion was based on an analysis of the launch plume and trajectory of the missile, as detected by a U.S. military spy satellite. The analysis did not pinpoint the origin of the missile or identify who launched it. But a senior Defense Department official said the Americans believed the missile had been launched "from several kilometers inside the Ukrainian border."
Ukrainian officials, who have called the downing a terrorist attack carried out by the separatists, have referred to the missile by a different name, Buk M1. The Ukrainian armed forces have Buk M1 missiles, which separatists may have purloined.
"The analysts are still trying to get detailed granularity on that," a senior Pentagon official said. "Those are the million-dollar questions."
There was also no indication on Friday of a motive, though most U.S. analysts have concluded that the missile operators believed they were firing at a Ukrainian military plane, not a civilian jetliner.
U.S. officials identified the lone American passenger known to have been aboard as Quinn Lucas Schansman, a dual citizen of the United States and the Netherlands.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, the Foreign Ministry announced that it planned to transport the victims to a special laboratory in the northeast city of Kharkiv, outside of rebel control, and was arranging visas and free hotel accommodations in Kiev and Kharkiv for relatives of the victims, whose nationalities spanned more than nine countries.
Ukrainian officials also said that some of the work of emergency responders at the crash site, near the mining town of Grabovo, had been hindered by the separatists, but that workers had recovered 181 bodies by midday on Friday. More than half of the passengers were Dutch.
Kostyantyn Batozsky, an adviser to the Donetsk regional governor, said in a telephone news conference that the aircraft voice and data recording devices had been recovered by Ukrainian emergency services workers whom the rebels had granted access to the crash site. But he said he did not know the current location of the devices or who had possession of them.
At the same time, Aleksander Borodai, the pro-Russian rebel who leads the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters that his group had the so-called black boxes and intended to turn them over to officials at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which will be helping to secure the scene. Borodai said that Dutch and Malaysian officials had informally asked his group to leave the debris and bodies untouched.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists has involved the successful use of missiles against aircraft at higher and higher altitudes.
Russia's Defense Ministry, in denying any responsibility, noted that units of the Ukrainian army possessed the Buk M1 air-defense missile launchers mentioned as the possible weapon that felled the jetliner. Much of the speculation surrounding the crash has focused on that system, particularly because the pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine bragged on social media in late June that they had taken possession of a Buk system after capturing a Ukrainian military base.
The crash remained the subject of intense debate in Grabovo as residents tried to come to grips with what had unfolded in the fields where they work, just yards from their homes.
Two villagers said quietly that they had seen the flash of a rocket in the sky around the time the plane went down. A man named Victor, who said he was too afraid to give his last name, said that he had been in his garden at the time and that he had seen "the light coming from a rocket."
He said it had come from the direction of Snizhne, a city where the Ukrainians have been bombing rebel positions frequently for more than a week. "It was a rocket, I'm sure of it," he said.
The other villager, Sergei, 15, who also did not want to give his last name, said he had been swimming in a nearby river when he saw what appeared to be a rocket being launched into the sky. He said he had jumped out of the water, hopped on his motorbike and sped home.
As a cloudy dawn came, the full horror in the field was on display. Small white pieces of cloth dotted the grassy farmland, marking the spots of bodies.
Four rebels in fatigues wandered through the ruins, looking through people's belongings, guidebooks and bags. Asked who was responsible for the crash, they looked incredulous and said that it had of course been the Ukrainian military.
"This wasn't ours," said a rebel who identified himself only as Alexei, looking at an overhead bin in the grass with a rifle over his shoulder. "Why would we do this? We're not animals."
The smell of flesh hung heavily near a broken hulk of metal on the road where a body lay splayed. A foot with part of a leg was on the road.
The plane appeared to have broken apart at a great height, and pieces were scattered across fields for several miles. The two wings lay akimbo, as if pushed forward on impact. The plane had been full of fuel when it crashed, and the fire near the engine was fierce, turning the twisted metal remains into molten pools that hardened by morning.
"This is direct provocation of the EU and the U.S.," said a rebel, Alexander Nikolaevich, who was walking along the road near the scene. "You see our weapons," he said, pointing to his aging gun. "We started to win the war, and the fascists did this to stop us."
When asked if the fight would continue, he said, "A little bit."
In Malaysia, there was mourning on a Ramadan Friday. Malaysians, shocked at the loss of a second Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 - it has been just four months since a plane disappeared en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur - wondered openly why Flight 17 had been flying over an area where increasingly powerful surface-to-air missiles were being used.
In a statement delivered before dawn in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia noted pointedly that the International Civil Aviation Organization had declared the airspace safe and that the International Air Transport Association had not restricted travel there. "We must, and we will, find out precisely what happened to this flight," Najib said.
Ukrainian and European air traffic controllers had continued to route civil flights over the contested area even as the fighting worsened, and even as flights directed by Russian controllers had apparently started to avoid it.
Ukrainian intelligence officials have pointed to a fighter named Igor Bezler, the militia leader in the eastern town of Gorlovka, saying he was heard in an intercepted phone call saying that his men had "shot down a plane" on Thursday. Several assassinations are believed to have happened under Bezler's watch soon after his forces took Gorlovka, and he took responsibility for killing a number of Ukrainian militiamen in the town of Volnovakha some weeks ago.
According to Russian Internet sources, he was born in 1965 in Crimea and studied in Russia. He served in the Russian military but moved back to Ukraine in 2003, where he began to work as the head of security for a factory in Gorlovka. Biographies also note that he had worked in a company that performed burial services but was fired in 2012. He has been wanted by the Ukrainian authorities since April.
Bezler's nom de guerre is Bes, which in Russian sounds like the first syllable of his last name, but also means demon. There are rumors that he does not get along with other militia leaders and that he has had street battles with the Vostok Battalion, though rebels have dismissed those allegations.
In a slickly produced video called "Heroes of Novorossii," the name of the self-declared insurgent region, Bezler was shown wearing a light blue beret. He had blue eyes and a long mustache. In a recent interview with the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, he claimed to be holding 14 Ukrainian soldiers hostage and said the Ukrainian military had fallen apart, "much like the condition of the Russian military in the early 1990s."
In the interview, Bezler said he was a Russian passport holder but had a residency permit in Ukraine. He said he sang the national anthem of the Soviet Union every morning and usually went to bed around 10:30 p.m. He confirmed that he had worked as head of security for the Gorlovka factory and claimed that he had been fired from the burial services company over a fight with the local mayor, who he said was demanding bribes.
The crash was another setback for Malaysia Airlines, which has already been struggling to recover from the loss of Flight 370, which vanished March 8 during a red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The enduring mystery over that flight has severely hurt demand for Malaysia Airlines tickets, forcing the airline to offer budget-carrier prices even though it bears the costs of a full-service airline.
© 2014, The New York Times News Service