By Micheal D Shear, Somini Sengupta & Sabrina Tavernise
President Barack Obama said on Friday that the United States believed the Malaysia Airlines jetliner felled over eastern Ukraine was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from an area inside Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
Obama’s remarks at the White House were the strongest public suggestions yet from the US over who was responsible for the downing of the jetliner, which exploded, crashed and burned on Thursday on farmland in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
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Obama said the loss of life was an “outrage of unspeakable proportions” and a “global tragedy”. He vowed to investigate exactly what happened to end the lives of “men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis” in that region. He also said that at least one American was among the dead.
“We are going to make sure the truth is out,” Obama said, referring to what he described as a trove of misinformation that has 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 impede 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,” he said. “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.”
Obama spoke after Samantha Power, the American 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, was at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet in a commonly used air route over eastern Ukraine when it was struck on Thursday.
Obama resisted blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin personally, saying that the government does not know exactly who fired the missile. But he made clear that he holds the Russians responsible for failing to stop the violence that made the downing possible.
“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 is “not possible for these separatists to be functioning the way they are” without Russian support.
The president said 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.” Putin could make a decision not to allow heavy armaments or troops to flow across the border from Russia into Ukraine. If he did that, Obama said, “then it will stop”.
The 15-member UN Security Council unanimously called for a “full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the cause of the crash. Jeffrey D Feltman, the United Nations undersecretary general for political affairs, told the council that 80 children were among the dead.
Two senior Defense Department officials said Pentagon and American intelligence agencies had concluded that an SA-11 missile, fired from an area near the Russia border, had downed the plane.
The conclusion is based on an analysis of the launch plume and trajectory of the missile, as detected by an American military spy satellite. The American analysis did not pinpoint the precise origin of the missile launch or who actually launched the missile. But a senior Defense Department official said the Americans believed the missile had been launched “from several kilometres inside the Ukrainian border”.
In Grabovo, at the site of the crash, two villagers said they had seen the flash of a rocket in the sky around the time the plane went down. 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 of the field was on display. Small white pieces of cloth dotted the grassy farmland, marking the spots of bodies.
Four rebels in fatigues were wandering through the ruins, looking through people’s belongings and riffling through guidebooks and bags. When 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, standing 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 lying 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 was full of fuel when it crashed and the fire near the engine was fierce, turning the twisted metal remains into molten pools that had hardened by morning.
“This is direct provocation of the EU and the US,” 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”.