Russia and Ukraine traded angry accusations of involvement after a Malaysia Airlines plane with 298 people on board crashed Thursday in a rebel-held area of eastern Ukraine.
The Boeing 777, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, U.S. officials said. The downing of the passenger jet dramatically raises the stakes and further drags the international community into eastern Ukraine’s violent three-month-old rebellion.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said it was a “not an incident, not a catastrophe, but a terrorist act,” and his government pointed the finger of blame at Russian-backed insurgents operating in the area of the crash.
Grisly video posted online from the crash site near the village of Grabovo, east of the city of Donetsk and slightly more than 40 kilometres from the Russian border, showed a wide area of scorched black earth covered in burned bodies and scattered personal belongings – laptops, holiday clothes and a Lonely Planet guide to the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok – as well as twisted remnants of the plane. Another video showed debris falling from the sky, suggesting a mid-air explosion. There were no reports of survivors.
At least one Canadian was among the dead, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a strongly worded statement Thursday. “While we do not yet know who is responsible for this attack, we continue to condemn Russia’s military aggression and illegal occupation of Ukraine, which is at the root of the ongoing conflict in the region.”
The pro-Russian rebels declared an independent People’s Republic of Donetsk in May, sparking fighting that has killed more than 1,000 people. In recent weeks, the rebels have demonstrated they wield a new and sophisticated arsenal, including anti-aircraft weaponry.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said “no stone will be left unturned” in finding out what had happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, adding the plane made no distress call before the crash. “If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice,” he said at a news conference.
The shock and scale of the tragedy will push the conflict in Ukraine – and the Kremlin’s support for the rebels – back to the top of the international agenda. Tensions between Moscow and the West were already at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War following February’s pro-Western revolution in Kiev, and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The United Nations Security Council announced it would hold an emergency session Friday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the United States announced a fresh round of sanctions intended to punish Moscow for supplying the rebellion in the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk with fighters and weaponry. On Thursday, President Barack Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that there would be “continued costs and isolation” unless the Russian side took steps to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine.
A White House readout of the call ended with Mr. Putin mentioning to Mr. Obama that reports were coming in of a downed passenger plane near the Ukraine-Russia border.
In televised remarks to his national security team, Mr. Putin said responsibility for the disaster lay with Kiev, and specifically Mr. Poroshenko’s decision to restart military operations against the rebels earlier this month after a brief ceasefire.
“This tragedy would not have happened, if there had been peace on that land, or in any case if military operations in southeastern Ukraine had not been renewed,” Mr. Putin said. “And without doubt the government of the territory on which it happened bears responsibility for this frightening tragedy.”
Russian media quoted separatist leaders saying they were willing to agree to a two- or three-day truce to allow for an investigation into the fate of flight MH17. The Interfax news agency reported that the rebels had already recovered the plane’s black box, which would hold crucial information about its final few moments.
It’s the second tragedy to befall a Malaysia Airlines plane in 2014. Flight MH370 disappeared off radar in March while flying a route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The plane and its 239 passengers and crew haven’t been found.
Questions were immediately raised Thursday about why passenger airlines were flying over eastern Ukraine at all given the intensity of the conflict and the increasing targeting of military aircraft in the area. Eurocontrol – the central authority governing European air traffic – said the airspace had been closed below 9,750 metres due to the risks posed by the fighting on the ground, but that MH17 had been flying at an authorized altitude, 33,000 feet more than 10,000 metres above Donetsk. Following the crash, Eurocontrol announced a complete shutdown of eastern Ukraine’s airspace to commercial traffic.
Aleksandr Borodai, one of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the Ukrainian military was behind the shooting down of MH17 and that the rebels had no weapons capable of hitting a plane flying at 10,000 metres.
However, the rebels told Russian media last month that they had seized control of an anti-aircraft base in eastern Ukraine containing Soviet-era Buk mobile surface-to-air missile systems capable of firing SA-11 and SA-17 missiles with a range of 25 kilometres. The batteries require specialized training to operate, target and accurately fire.
Videos posted by local residents on YouTube showed a Buk system moving in the rebel-held town of Snizhne on Thursday, some 20 kilometres from Grabovo, where wreckage from flight MH17 was eventually found. Social media accounts affiliated with the rebels briefly celebrated the downing of a Ukrainian military transport plane in the same area. The postings on the Russian-language VKontakte network were later deleted.
The head of Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service said an intercepted phone call proved Russian military officers were involved in the shooting down of MH17. In the recording, which was posted online, one man – speaking in Russian and identified by the SBU as a separatist fighter – tells a man identified as a Russian military officer that the rebels had shot down a plane, believed at the time to be an Antonov-26 transport. In a later call, a different voice describes finding “civilian items, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper” at the crash site, as well as documents belonging to an Indonesian student.
The downing of MH17 came hours after Kiev claimed that one of its Su-25 fighter planes was shot down in Ukrainian airspace by a Russian military aircraft. NATO Supreme Commander Phil Breedlove posted a video earlier Thursday that he said showed truck-mounted Grad rockets being fired from Russia into Ukraine.
But Russia’s RIA Novosti news service quoted an unnamed source who said the plane had “likely” been shot down by the Ukrainian military, which recently declared a no-fly zone in the area. The website for the RT news channel published a report suggesting MH17 might have been shot down by Ukrainian military hoping to assassinate Mr. Putin, who reportedly flew home from a trip to South America on Thursday via some of the same airspace.