President Barack Obama said Friday that the missile that downed a commercial jet was fired from a separatist-held location in Ukraine, and the American ambassador to the United Nations said she could not rule out that Russia had helped.
The president stopped short of saying that pro-Russian separatists had taken out the jet, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 people. He and other world leaders called for an immediate cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, where the separatists have fought government forces for months, to let investigators in.
Obama also confirmed that at least one American citizen was among the dead: Quinn Lucas Schansman, who the State Department said also had Dutch citizenship.
Speaking at the White House, Obama said that all the deaths were an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.”
At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Ambassador Samantha Power said that Moscow had transferred tanks and artillery across the border into Ukraine, and she said the world could not rule out that Russian personnel had provided the technical assistance necessary to launch a missile and take out a plane.
“We will not rest until we find out what happened,” she said. “The perpetrators must be brought to justice. They must not be sheltered by any member state of the United Nations.”
The Russian U.N. ambassador warned against pre-judging the investigation with “broad statements and insinuations that are unjustified.” Russia denied that it anything to do with the attack, as did the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists.
The plane, a Boeing 777, went down Thursday morning about three hours into a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Most of the passengers were Dutch.
At the crash site, in a separatist-held region of Ukraine just west of the Russian border, Ukrainian rescue crews marked bodies, said Grigory Guveniuk, a Ukrainian emergency officer. But the separatists, who control the site, did not allow them to take the bodies to train cars set up nearby to preserve them, Guveniuk said.
“The rebels did not explain anything. They just said, ‘It’s over. You’re done. You can resume at 6:00 tomorrow,’” he told NBC News. “But none of the bodies are in the refrigerators yet. Everything is on the ground. We will take them when the rebels let us.”
Corpses and plane parts were strewn across six square miles.
In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board and FBI confirmed to NBC News they will send investigators to Ukraine to assist in the investigation.
Confusion clouded the early search. The separatists said they had recovered recording devices from the plane, then said that nothing had been found. A regional official said two black boxes had been found but had no information on where they were.
Tensions between Russia and the West were already at their highest since the end of the Cold War, and they were further raised by Western suggestions that Russia bore at least some responsibility for the downed airliner.
The pro-Russian separatists boasted about shooting down Ukrainian military aircraft during the fighting this year, and outside analysts raised the possibility that the separatists mistook the passenger jet for another military plane.
Power noted that the separatists, on Thursday, initially bragged on social media about shooting down a plane, then deleted those messages. Separatist leaders later denied involvement.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, dismissed any suggestion that Russia was behind the attack.
“Regarding those claims from Kiev that we allegedly did it ourselves: I have not heard a truthful statement from Kiev for months,” he told a Russian news channel.
Ukrainian authorities have also blamed the separatists. Russian President Vladimir Putin said late Thursday that Ukraine “bears full responsibility” for the disaster. He demanded a “thorough and unbiased investigation.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country had at least 27 people on the flight, was furious that Russia initially pointed the finger at Ukraine.
“It’s very important that we don’t allow Russia to prevent an absolutely comprehensive investigation so that we can find out exactly what happened here,” he said. “This is not an accident, it’s a crime.”
Ukraine on Thursday directed reporters to a clip of two telephone intercepts that Ukraine said proved Russian involvement. In one clip, a man identified as a rebel commander tells a man identified as a Russian intelligence officer: “Just now a plane was shot down.”
NBC News could not verify the recording.
In the Netherlands, flags flew at half-staff. Passengers also came from Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia and several other countries. Malaysia Airlines still had not verified the nationalities of four people on the plane.
At least six of the passengers were on their way to Australia for an international AIDS conference, and among the dead was a scientist described as a giant of the fight against the disease.
Indiana University said that a Dutch doctoral student, Karlijn Keijzer, 25, was aboard. The school said she had also earned a master’s degree from IU and was on the rowing team in 2011.
The crash was the second tragedy to befall Malaysia Airlines this year. Four months ago, another Boeing 777, bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished in the most perplexing mystery in modern aviation history.
The Malaysian transport minister, Liow Tiong Lai, told reporters that if it turns out that the plane was shot down, it would be “an outrage against human decency.”
Jay Blackman, Irina Tkachenko and Kristen Welker of NBC News contributed to this report. Reuters and The Associated Press also contributed to this report.
First published July 18 2014, 7:07 AM