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Prime Minister Stephen Harper condemns ‘military aggression and illegal occupation’ of Ukraine. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper condemns ‘military aggression and illegal occupation’ of Ukraine.

(Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Harper blames Russia for driving conflict in region, in aftermath of MH17 disaster Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is pointing a finger at Russia in the aftermath of a Malaysia Airlines plane crash in Ukraine that killed nearly 300 people, saying the plane was “shot down” and that, while the cause is unclear, it is Russian aggression that is driving conflict in the region.

The airline said the victims include at least one Canadian, and Mr. Harper was among many world leaders to speak out. The crash could exacerbate tensions in the region, where the Ukraine government is fighting pro-Russian separatists, and each side was blaming the other for the tragedy.

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Mr. Harper’s written statement, released just after 7 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, said he was “shocked and saddened” to learn the plane was “shot down,” and expressed condolence to families of those on board.

“We understand from reports that a Canadian citizen is among the dead. On behalf of the Government of Canada, Laureen and I offer our thoughts and prayers to the families and friends of the victims of this outrageous act,” the statement said, referring to Mr. Harper’s wife, Laureen Harper.

The Prime Minister went on to say Russian aggression is feeding the turmoil in the region.

“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,” he said.

“Canada stands ready to provide whatever support it can to assist authorities in determining the cause of the crash.”

U.S. President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and pledged U.S. assistance.

During a trip to Delaware, Mr. Obama said “the world is watching” what happens with deadly incident.

“It looks like it might be a terrible tragedy,” he said. “Right now, we’re working to determine whether there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden said the crash was not accidental and that the plane was “blown out of the sky.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been at a European Union summit, headed home to deal with the aftermath. The airline said more than half the plane’s passengers were Dutch.

At least 27 of the dead were said to be Australian. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday it appeared that “Russian-backed rebels” were behind the incident.

The previous day, he had appeared less certain, unlike Mr. Harper and Mr. Biden.

“It is a very, very sad time, made worse by reports that it might be a crime rather than an accident,” Mr. Abbott said on Thursday.

Mr. Abbott said he planned to speak with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak later on Friday and that Australia would deploy staff to Kiev to assist in an investigation.

Asked if he would still welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin to Australia for the G20 Leaders Summit this year if Russia were behind the crash, Mr. Abbott hinted at repercussions.

“That’s a fair question, let’s just wait and see exactly what turns out to have happened here,” he said.

Mr. Najib called for an investigation at the crash site and the unfettered co-operation of local authorities.

“Malaysia is unable to verify the cause of this tragedy,” he said.

“… If it transpires that the plane was, indeed, shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must be brought to justice.”

With reports from the Associated Press, Reuters and Paul Koring

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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