U.S. diplomat points finger at pro-Russian rebels over Flight 17
KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — A senior U.S. diplomat pointed the finger Friday at pro-Russian rebels in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine, an act that killed 298 people.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that the plane was “likely downed by a surface-to-air missile … operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine.”
If pro-Russian separatists are responsible for shooting down the plane with a missile, investigators can’t rule out the possibility that Russia offered help to operate the system, she said.
Power also said Russia should take steps to cool tensions in Ukraine.
“Russia can end this war,” she said. “Russia must end this war.”
The United States and Ukraine are committed to a diplomatic solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, she said, but if Russia continues to choose escalation, additional sanctions will follow.
Separatist leaders also boasted on social media about shooting down the plane and later deleted those references, she said.
On board were 298 people, none of whom survived the crash, she said. Three were infants.
A preliminary classified U.S. intelligence analysis has concluded that the missile that hit Flight 17 most likely was fired by pro-Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine, according to a U.S. defense official with direct access to the latest information.
The official declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information.
Power had tough words for Russia, saying it had not lived up to its commitments to ease tensions and halt the flow of weapons over the border to the rebels in Ukraine.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier blasted the “terrorists” he blamed for shooting down Flight 17 over Ukraine a day earlier, with 298 people aboard.
He called on all governments to back the investigation and “to support the Ukrainian government to bring to justice all these bastards who committed this international crime.”
Russia, Ukraine trade accusations
Since the Malaysia Airlines jet fell from the sky above eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Russia and Ukraine — which routinely uses the word “terrorists” to describe pro-Russian rebels — have traded blame and accusations.
“Terrorists have killed almost 300 persons with one shot,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Thursday. “Among them are women, children, citizens of different countries of the world.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed the finger back at Ukraine, blaming its recent tough military operations against separatists for the volatility in the region.
But Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin rejected that claim, telling CNN it was up to Russia to stop the flow of heavy weaponry across Ukraine’s eastern border and push the separatists to embrace a cease-fire.
He also dismissed any suggestion that Ukrainian forces may have been involved in Thursday’s tragedy.
“There was no way our forces could be engaged in any way in this incident,” Klimkin said, adding that Ukraine did not have any military assets in the area that could have shot down MH17.
Klimkin says Ukraine intercepted telephone calls between “terrorists” at the time the plane was shot down.
Yatsenyuk called for a U.N. Security Council meeting to be held and for all nations to do everything they could to stop what he said was not now just a war in Ukraine or Europe, but a “war against the world.”
Meanwhile, international inspectors headed to the crash site Friday tasked with finding the plane’s flight data recorders, which may lie amid the human remains and debris strewn across fields near the town of Torez.
Ukrainian government officials said 181 bodies had been found.
The latest information from Malaysia Airlines indicates that the Netherlands has suffered the harshest blow, with at least 189 of its citizens among those killed.
Experts have voiced concern that the crash site has not been properly secured, making the recovery of bodies and collection of evidence difficult.
Monitors head to crash site
A group of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is on its way to the crash site near Torez, in rebel territory in the Donetsk region.
Michael Bociurkiw, who was traveling with about 30 colleagues, told CNN the OSCE had been given assurances by separatist leaders that they would be able to pass through rebel-held checkpoints.
OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine to observe the civil conflict have previously been taken hostage by separatist groups.
There have been conflicting reports over whether the plane’s data recorders have already been recovered by rescue workers or separatists. Ukrainian officials have suggested separatists may seek to take them to Moscow.
An adviser to Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Geraschenko was quoted by Ukraine’s Interfax news agency Friday as saying that the missile launcher used to down the Malaysian plane is already in Russia and will be destroyed.
The “Buk” launcher, as well as the flight data recorders from MH17, were handed over to Russian agents across the border at a checkpoint in the Luhansk area overnight, Geraschenko claimed, citing Ukrainian intelligence sources.
Ukraine’s state security chief has also accused two Russian military intelligence officers of involvement in Thursday’s events. Valentyn Nalyvaichenko said he based his allegation on intercepts of phone conversations between Russian officers, saying the conversation implicates the pro-Russian side.
CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of the recording.
Ukrainian officials reported earlier this week that two Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down in the country’s east. They accused a Russian fighter of shooting down a Ukrainian jet Wednesday and said Russian weapons had been used against an An-26 military transport plane Monday.
In an exclusive interview with the state-run Russia 24 TV channel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia would “insist on the most objective, most open and independent investigation” into what happened to Flight 17.
“We’re ready to make our own contribution, but certainly we believe the initiative must be undertaken by the authorities of the country on which territory this tragedy occurred,” he said.
“With regard to the claims raised by Kiev, that it was almost us who did it: In fact I haven’t heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months.”
‘Outrage against human decency’
If the pro-Russian separatists did shoot down Flight 17, headed to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, the jet’s passengers and crew are innocent casualties in Ukraine’s separatist armed crisis.
The passengers and crew hailed from all over the world, including Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany and Canada. No survivors have been found.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai offered his condolences Friday to the families affected and said Malaysia would support them. The full passenger list will be released once all the next-of-kin have been contacted, he said.
If reports that the jet was shot down are confirmed, “it would contravene international law and be an outrage against human decency,” the minister said, speaking to reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
He defended the routing of the Malaysia Airlines plane over a conflict area, saying other carriers were sending their aircraft through the same airspace above Ukraine in the hours before MH17 came down.
“Following this incident, Malaysia Airlines now avoids Ukrainian airspace entirely, flying farther south over Turkey,” a statement from the airline said.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure announced Friday that the airspace over Donetsk, Luhansk and part of Kharkiv where separatists are operating had been closed indefinitely.
Three months ago, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration prohibited U.S. airlines from flying in areas some way south of where Flight 17 crashed Thursday.
The Boeing 777 jet had a “clean maintenance record,” and its last maintenance check was on July 11, Malaysia Airlines Regional Senior Vice President Huib Gorter told reporters at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam on Friday. The plane was manufactured in 1997, and it had 17 years of service, he said.
Malaysia’s transport minister said Ukraine would lead the investigation.
Who was on the plane?
The 15 crew members on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were all Malaysian nationals, officials said.
Malaysia Airlines also gave a breakdown of the known nationalities of the 283 passengers: 189 were Dutch, 29 were Malaysian, 27 were Australian, 12 were Indonesian, nine were from the United Kingdom, four were from Germany, four were from Belgium, three were from the Philippines, one was Canadian and one was from New Zealand.
Authorities were still trying to determine the nationalities of the other four people on board, it said.
The International AIDS Society said in a statement that “a number” of its members were on the plane on the way to a conference in Melbourne, Australia.
“At this incredibly sad and sensitive time, the IAS stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost to this tragedy,” the statement said.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who knew some of those on board through the work of his foundation, told CNN that news of the crash was “awful.”
‘Blown out of the sky’
Leaders and diplomats from around the world have called for investigators to be given unobstructed access to the disputed region.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Ukraine’s President had accepted an offer of U.S. experts to help investigate the crash.
The plane was apparently shot down,”not an accident, blown out of the sky,” Biden said Thursday.
“It is critical that there be a full, credible, and unimpeded international investigation as quickly as possible,” the White House said in a statement.
The Obama administration believes Ukraine did not have the capability in the region — let alone the motivation — to shoot down the plane, a U.S. official told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
But the White House placed some blame on Russia and warned that evidence must not be tampered with.
“While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fueled by Russian support for the separatists, including through arms, materiel and training,” it said in a statement.
But defense expert and retired Brig. Gen. Kevin Ryan said Ukraine and Russia both have the missile capability to shoot down such an aircraft at such an altitude.
Tensions have been high between Ukraine and Russia since street protests forced former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February. Russia subsequently annexed Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region, and a pro-Russian separatist rebellion has been raging in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Ukraine’s government has accused Russia of allowing weapons and military equipment, including tanks, to cross the border illegally into the hands of pro-Russian separatists.
Merkel stressed Friday that Russia must do more to ease the crisis in Ukraine.
“Russia is largely responsible for what’s happening in the Ukraine now, and I would make an appeal — that the Russian President and the Russian government should make a contribution so that a political solution can be found,” she said.
European Union leaders agreed this week to expand sanctions against individuals and entities in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, with details to be decided by the end of the month. Expanded U.S. sanctions were also announced in Washington.
Thursday’s crash marks the second time this year that Malaysia Airlines has faced an incident involving a downed plane.
On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people on board. Searchers have found no trace of the Boeing 777 or its passengers despite extensive search efforts.
Flight 370 probably flew into the southern Indian Ocean on autopilot with an unresponsive crew, Australian authorities said last month.
A new underwater search is expected to begin in August. It will be broadly in an area where planes and vessels had already looked for debris on the surface of the water.
CNN’s Nic Robertson reported from Kiev and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Barbara Starr, Catherine E. Shoichet, Jim Sciutto, Dana Ford, Saima Mohsin, Mitra Mobasherat, Ben Brumfield and Michael Pearson contributed to this report, as did journalist Victoria Butenko.
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