The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 injects a new sense of crisis into the standoff between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and NATO-bloc countries over the conflict in Ukraine.
The aircraft carried 298 passengers and crew from a dozen nations. There were no survivors. Among the victims were scientists and other specialists attending the annual international conference on AIDS research that opens this weekend in Melbourne, Australia.
All sides are calling for a thorough investigation to determine what happened to the aircraft and who is to blame – if, as appears likely, it was shot down on Thursday over disputed terroritory near the Ukraine-Russian border by a missile.
But it will be difficult to secure the scattered crash site and conduct an impartial probe of the evidence. There is much at stake: whoever is proven repsonsible for shooting down the civilian passenger jet will find few friends in the international community.
Meanwhile, accusations and denials continue to flow from Moscow and Kiev, as well as the loosely-organized armed militias roaming the contested area of east Ukraine where the wreckage lies.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday that the United States cannot rule out that Russia helped in the launch of the surface-to-air missile that shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
Power said the U.S. believes the plane was likely downed by an SA-11 missile fired from an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. She said Russia has provided SA-11s and other heavy weapons to the separatists.
Britain’s UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, who called the emergency meeting, was more emphatic on assessing blame for the crash.
“It is clear where responsibility lies: with the senseless violence of armed separatists and with those who have supported, equipped and advised them,” he said. “The council must be united in condemning these actions, and in demanding that these groups disarm, desist from violence and intimidation and engage in dialogue through the democratic mechanisms that are available to them.”
The key developments so far:
SECURING THE SCENE
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a cease-fire Friday in eastern Ukraine and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible. But Ukrainian and NATO-bloc leaders are waiting for actions to match those words as the crash scene, scattered over 15 kilometres, remains in the control of pro-Russian militias who have been fighting a bloody guerilla war against Ukraine forces for over a month.
Germany’s Angela Merkel underlined the need for a broad ceasefire and used a Friday news conference to issue a “very clear call” for Mr. Putin to help make this happen.
A pro-Russian separatist leaders said on Friday his group would welcome experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and from Ukraine’s government to the crash site.
The OSCE said 30 observers and experts from the organisation, which has monitors in the region, had reached the site on Friday. However, gunmen prevented monitors from observing the site where a Malaysian airliner crashed in rebel-held eastern Ukraine on Friday, the rights and security watchdog said.
Calling their behaviour “impolite and unprofessional,” an OSCE spokesman said some gunmen in the area seemed intoxicated while others would not let the team of about 25 observers look at the wreckage of the Boeing 777.
The plane’s two black boxes - voice and data recorders - were recovered, but it was unlikely they could determine who fired the missile.
Further complicating any investigation, local people were seen removing pieces of wreckage as souvenirs. The condition of the metal can indicate if it has been struck by a missile.
FBI and U.S. National Transportation Safety Board personnel are headed to the region to serve in an advisory role for the investigation, a U.S. official said.
THE BLAME GAME
U.S. intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought down MH17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, but could not say who fired it. The Ukraine government in Kiev, the separatist pro-Russia rebels they are fighting and the Russia government that Ukraine accuses of supporting the rebels all deny shooting the passenger plane down. Moscow also denies backing the rebels.
On Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the crash, saying the government in Kiev was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions. But he did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.
The separatists were quoted in Russian media last month saying they had acquired a long-range SA-11 anti-aircraft system.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday that the plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. Mr. Obama said Russia's Mr. Putin had the most power to reduce the violence in Ukraine but had not chosen to do so.
The Russian defence ministry suggested on Friday that a Ukrainian radar station for surface-to-air missiles was operating yesterday 30km south of Donetsk on the Thursday and added that a Buk missile could have been launched from systems stationed in the area.
Russian media reports even suggested a missile was fired by Ukraine forces and that the target could have been the private plane carrying Mr. Putin back from a visit to South America.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry released a video purporting to show a truck carrying the Buk missile launcher it said was used to fire on the plane with one of its four missiles apparently missing. The ministry said the footage was filmed by a police surveillance squad at dawn Friday as the truck was heading to the city of Krasnodon toward the Russian border.
There was no way to independently verify the video.
An official with Malaysia Airlines says at least one Canadian was among the 298 people aboard the plane. His family identified him as Andrei Anghel, a 24-year-old from Ajax, Ont., studying in Romania. There were no survivors.
Mr. Obama said there was one American among the passengers. He was identified as Quinn Lucas Schansman. A White House official said Schansman held dual U.S.-Dutch citizen ship.
A Malaysia Airlines official said 189 of the passengers were Dutch. There were also 29 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine from the United Kingdom, four each from Germany and Belgium, three from the Philippines, one each from Canada and New Zealand and four passengers whose nationalities have yet to be confirmed.
In Malaysia, there was a sense of disbelief that another airline disaster could strike so soon. The Netherlands declared a national day of mourning.
In an almost incomprehensible twist of fate, an Australian woman who lost her brother in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 learned on Friday that her stepdaughter was on the plane shot down over Ukraine.
One woman living in the crash zone told how a corpse smashed though the roof of her house. “There was a howling noise and everything started to rattle. Then objects started falling out of the sky,” said Irina Tipunova, 65. “And then I heard a roar and she landed in the kitchen.”
A DANGEROUS ROUTE?
Despite the long-running conflict in the area, airlines have continued to fly over the region, which lies along the shortest route from major European airports to southeast Asia.
But some leading airlines had begun to avoid the area, Agence Frenace Presse reports, including South Korea’s Korean Air and Asiana, Australia’s Qantas and Taiwan’s China Airlines.
“We stopped flying over Ukraine because of safety concerns,” Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyo-Min told AFP.
Asked why Malaysia Airlines did not take similar precautions, Malaysia’s Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai noted that international air authorities had deemed the flight path secure.
“The flight path taken by MH17 was approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and by the countries whose airspace the route passed through,” AFP quoted the minister telling reporters in Kuala Lumpur.
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