(For more news on downing of Flight MH17, see EXT2.)
July 18 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said the U.S. has concluded that a surface-to-air missile launched from insurgent-held territory in eastern Ukraine brought down a Malaysia Air jetliner, killing all 298 people on board.
“Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions,” Obama said today at the White House. Russia continues to refuse to de-escalate the conflict, he said, calling for an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine
The U.S. is raising pressure on Russia to end support for the rebels as the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting over the catastrophe. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, told the 15-member council today in New York that the U.S. is pushing Ukraine to escalate tensions and Russia “places all blame on Kiev.” He questioned why Ukraine allowed a civilian plane to fly over the conflict zone and called for an impartial investigation.
The conflict in Ukraine, which has morphed into Europe’s biggest crisis since the Cold War, catapulted to the world’s attention with the crash of the Malaysian 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.
Speaking in New York today, Ukrainian Ambassador to the UN Yuriy Sergeyev also blamed Russia for assisting “terrorists.”
“This war can be ended,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told told the council. “Russia can end this war and Russia must end this war.”
Obama accused Russia of providing a “steady flow of support” to insurgents battling the Ukrainian government, including arms, training and heavy weapons. While the fighting in Ukraine has raged, Obama said, “Russia has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to de-escalate the situation.”
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government called for a UN-led international inquiry. The U.S., Russia and Britain are among five veto-wielding council members.
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.”
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.
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.
Malaysia won’t yet point fingers over the crash, Razak said in televised remarks today
German Chancellor Angela Merkel 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.
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.
--With assistance from Henry Meyer, Anna Andrianova, Anatoly Medetsky and Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow, Nicole Gaouette, John Walcott, Tony Capaccio, Del Quentin Wilber and Angela Greiling Keane in Washington, Michael Sasso in Atlanta, Leon Mangasarian and Arne Delfs in Berlin, Robert Hutton and Thomas Penny in London, Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev and Shamim Adam in Kuala Lumpur.