The U.K. and the U.S. raised pressure on Russia to end support for the rebels blamed for the downing of a jetliner that killed all 298 people on board as the United Nations Security Council met to discuss the crash.
The Malaysian plane was probably shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by rebels from insurgent-held territory in Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador to UN Samantha Power told the Security Council in New York. The U.S. can’t rule out the possibility of Russian assistance to the separatists, she said.
“This war can be ended,” Power said today. “Russia can end this war and Russia must end this war.”
The conflict in Ukraine, which has morphed into Europe’s biggest crisis since the Berlin Wall fell a quarter-century ago, catapulted to the world’s attention with the crash of the Malaysian Air plane. President Vladimir Putin, who’s denied Russian involvement in the fighting in Ukraine, said the government in Kiev bore responsibility because the crash wouldn’t have occurred without the current strife with separatists battling regular forces in two eastern regions of the country.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government called for a UN-led international inquiry. Russia and Britain are among five veto-wielding council members.
“The United Kingdom urges Russia to reflect carefully on the situation they have created,” said Mark Lyall Grant, the U.K. ambassador to the UN. “We urge Russia to cease its policy of supporting armed separatist groups and their violent actions, of destabilizing a neighboring country, of generating displacement and social and economic hardship.”
As moves to investigate the crash got under way, Ukraine’s state security service said it intercepted phone conversations among pro-Russian militants discussing a missile strike that knocked the Boeing Co. 777 on Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur out of the sky 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russian border yesterday.
“I can see a potential for this forcing a de-escalation on Putin’s side,” Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House foreign-affairs research institute in London, said in a telephone interview. “Putin is in a delicate position right now internationally and domestically. This isn’t his Plan A.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Ukraine’s version of events, telling Rossiya 24 television he’d “hardly heard a single true statement” from the Kiev government in recent months.
Ukrainian emergency services have found the plane’s black boxes at the crash site, Kostyantyn Batozsky, an adviser to the head of the Donetsk regional administration appointed by President Petro Poroshenko, told reporters in a phone briefing today, though he was unable to give details of their current location. The government and rebels are discussing the creation of a safe corridor to the crash site and a demilitarized zone around it, he said.
A total of 181 bodies have been recovered from the crash site, and the remains will be sent to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrii Sybiga told reporters in Kiev today.
“Russia, which is financing terrorists, should acknowledge its responsibility,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told regional governors in Kiev today. “We call on all international governments to help us in the probe.”
Putin, speaking at an appearance with church leaders near Moscow today, called for an end to fighting. “Direct contacts between all conflicting sides should be immediately established, all sides in the conflict must immediately stop military actions and start peace negotiations,” he said.
The disaster happened a day after the U.S. imposed further sanctions on Russia over the conflict. President Barack Obama called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to offer condolences and “immediate assistance to support a prompt international investigation,” according to a White House statement.
“There are already strong indications that a missile launched from rebel-controlled areas may have caused this catastrophe,” Ilkka Kanerva, the president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, said in an e-mailed statement today.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today indications that the plane was shot down must be taken “very, very seriously.” She told reporters in Berlin she was issuing a “very clear call for the Russian president and the Russian government to assume their responsibility to ensure that there’s a political solution.” She urged the setting-up of a “verification regime” to ensure weapons aren’t being moved across the Russia-Ukraine frontier.
Away from the crash site, fighting continued in eastern Ukraine. More than 20 civilians were killed today when the center and surrounding districts of the eastern city of Luhansk were shelled, the city government said.
Three government soldiers were killed in fighting and 25 wounded in the past 24 hours, Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev early this afternoon. He said government forces had been attacked 19 times by the rebels during the period.
Flight 17 was at about 33,000 feet (10,000 meters), taking a route over eastern Ukraine that several other carriers avoided, putting it at an altitude cleared for commercial traffic, according to navigation agency Eurocontrol.
Pilots were instructed by Ukraine’s air traffic control to fly at 33,000 feet upon entering its air space after filing a flight plan requesting to proceed at 35,000 feet, the carrier said in a statement today.
The plane was also carrying helicopter and aircraft parts as well as live birds, dogs, freshly cut flowers and textiles, Malaysian Air said.
Ukraine’s air-traffic control service has now closed down the airspace above regions where fighting has been taking place, according to a statement on its website. Flights aren’t being allowed above the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and part of the Kharkiv region.
Flight 17 carried 283 passengers and 15 crew members, according to a tally by the airline. The bulk of the passengers -- 189 -- were from the Netherlands. There were 44 Malaysians on board, including crew, with 27 Australians the next largest group, as well passengers from Indonesia, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand. The nationality of four passengers remains unverified.
Andrei Purgin, a deputy premier of the rebels’ self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, yesterday denied the rebels were behind the attack, saying the Ukrainian army shot down the plane by mistake and the separatists didn’t have a weapon that could reach that altitude.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on its website late yesterday that the army hadn’t used missiles in its operation against the separatists. The army “did not fire a single rocket” it said.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies said that while they’re still investigating, it increasingly appears Flight 17 was downed by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile known by its NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation will advise an investigation into the crash and send a specialist in explosives to Ukraine, according to a U.S. law-enforcement official, who asked not to be identified in accordance with policy.
There’s a growing belief that Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine or Russia may have mistaken the jet for a Ukrainian military transport plane, said two Pentagon officials who asked not to identified because the details are private.
The Gadfly, known locally as the Buk-M, is a radar-guided weapon that can find a target at a range of 140 miles and reach altitudes as high about 72,000 feet, according to the army-technology.com website.
Ukraine detained two Russians on the border, one of them with military identification and trained in the Buk missile system, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, chairman of the state security service, told journalists in Kiev today.
The Interior Ministry posted a video on YouTube of what it said was a rebel forces’ truck moving a Buk rocket launcher with one rocket missing. It was heading through the city of Krasnodon toward the border with Russia, the ministry said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine had been using a tracking station linked to a Buk-M missile system near Donetsk yesterday, according to the RIA Novosti news service.
“This will turn a lot of public opinion against Russia and this will have an impact on world leaders,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview. “It gives the Ukrainian government all the reason to continue and intensify its offensive against the rebels -- and they’ll now get full international backing to do so.”
It was the second major disaster for Malaysian Airline System Bhd. this year. Flight 370 vanished with 239 people on board in March en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, sparking what has become the world’s longest search for a missing jetliner in modern aviation history.
The aircraft’s last maintenance check was on July 11, Malaysia Airlines said in a statement on its website. The plane, which was built in 1997, “had a clean bill of health” and all communications systems were “functioning normally,” it said.
Separatist groups in the Donetsk region agreed to close the crash site and to provide safe access and security guarantees to investigators and monitors, the OSCE said in a statement.
A White House official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said that over the past month, the flow of heavy weapons from Russia and support for Russian separatists has increased. Russia denies it’s trying to foment the unrest.
Ukraine has already lost multiple aircraft to the rebels. Earlier this week, the government said an An-26 transport plane was hit by a “powerful weapon” not previously used by the separatists, probably from inside Russia.