President Barack Obama said he has directed his national security team to stay in touch with Ukrainian authorities as they respond to the crash of a Malaysian Airlines plane in eastern Ukraine.
Obama, in brief remarks before a speech today on transportation, made no mention of reports that the aircraft was shot down by pro-Russian separatists battling the government in Kiev, or to sanctions on Russian companies announced yesterday by the U.S. and Europe.
“The world is watching reports of a downed passenger jet,” Obama said in Wilmington, Delaware. The U.S. is seeking to learn “what happened and why,” he said. “Right now we are working to determine if there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority.”
Obama called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak from Air Force One after leaving Delaware, the White House said. Obama told Poroshenko that all the evidence must remain in place on the crash site until international investigators get on the scene.
Obama separately convened a call with his national security advisers, including CIA director John Brennan, to get an update on the investigation and on U.S. assistance to Ukraine.
The downing of the airliner with 298 people on board raises the stakes in an already tense confrontation with Russia, which the U.S. and European Union accuse of supplying and supporting the separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine. Working with the EU, the U.S. yesterday placed sanctions on Russian banks, energy companies and defense firms in the latest attempt to punish the country for its actions.
Like Obama, U.S. allies in Europe responded cautiously to news about the crash and called for an independent review.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has worked closely with Obama on sanctioning Russia for its Ukraine policies, refrained from placing blame, while saying in a statement that if reports the plane was shot down prove true it would be a “tragic escalation” in the conflict.
European Commission President José Manuel and the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said in a joint statement they were “shocked” by the crash. They called for “an immediate and thorough investigation” into the cause.
French President Francois Hollande, speaking in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, said it’s essential that the “truth be established.”
‘Not an Accident’
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, attending political events in Detroit, called the events shocking.
“An aircraft -- a Malaysian aircraft heading from Western Europe to Kuala Lumpur -- as it crossed or was near the border of Ukraine and Russia -- apparently, I say apparently because I don’t have all the details and I want to be sure of what I say - - has been shot down,” he said. “Shot down, not an accident, blown out of the sky.”
Members of Congress said they were waiting for more information.
“It’s too soon to draw any conclusions,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said after a briefing from administration officials. “I’m not going to speculate about who is responsible. But finding out is extremely important.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Intelligence panel, said after the briefing that while it would be a concern if pro-Russian separatists were involved, it is “too soon to make any conclusions.”
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has criticized Obama’s posture toward Russia as weak, said he would expect a “stringent” response if Russia is deemed responsible.
Insurgents have downed several aircraft in recent weeks, including a transport aircraft flying at 21,000 feet.
“The separatists could have only gotten that capability from Russia, and so therefore the culpable party here is Vladamir Putin,” McCain said, referring to the Russian president. “But, again, I am not -- and we should not -- jump to any conclusions before we have more hard information.”
One lawmaker on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, blamed “Russian meddling in Ukraine” for the fate of the jet, regardless of the circumstances.
“This tragedy should compel the international community to strengthen its resolve to condemn and counter the violation of national sovereignty that precipitated this entire crisis,” Connolly said in a statement.
Obama may have first learned of the plane being downed from Putin. Initial reports of the crash became public as Obama spoke by telephone this morning with Putin, and the Russian president “noted” them during their conversation, according to the White House.
The Boeing 777, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was hit by a missile and went down near the eastern town of Torez, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border, U.S. military and intelligence officials said, requesting anonymity to discuss an incomplete investigation.
The pro-Russian rebels in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic said they weren’t involved, the Interfax news service reported.
The conversation between Obama and Putin was initiated to discuss the sanctions on Russian companies and banks that the U.S. imposed yesterday over Russia’s support for the separatists. Putin has repeatedly denied Russia’s involvement in the insurgency.