WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday demanded an impartial investigation into the missile attack over eastern Ukraine that brought down the Malaysian Airlines jetliner, and hinted strongly that Russia bears at least partial responsibility for supporting and equipping separatist rebels who are suspected of launching the strike.
Obama said the downing of the plane, which killed all 298 people aboard, appeared to be linked to the ongoing conflict in the region that has been “facilitated in large part because of Russian support.”
He confirmed that the missile appeared to have been fired at the plane, which was cruising at 33,000 feet, from a region of Ukraine controlled by separatists. US officials said the surface-to-air missile was most likely Russian-made and that separatists fighting for independence from Kiev may have had technical assistance from Russia in its use.
“Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken — men, women, children, infants — who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine,” Obama said in the White House briefing room. “Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”
“This should snap everybody’s heads to attention,” the president added. “This certainly will be a wake-up call for
Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.’’
But while US officials said the evidence pointed more strongly to Russian-backed separatists, Russia has denied involvement and suggested that Ukraine’s military might have been responsible, an assertion Ukraine rejected. Russian President Vladimir Putin called for talks, saying: “All sides to the conflict must swiftly halt fighting and begin peace negotiations. It is with great concern and sadness that we are watching what is happening in eastern Ukraine. It’s awful; it’s a tragedy.”
Obama also called for a cease-fire in Ukraine. But their dueling remarks indicated how the airliner tragedy has only added new tension to relations between the United States and Russia over the conflict.
Whether the incident will encourage Europeans to join the United States in seeking tougher sanctions against Russia for fomenting rebellion in Ukraine remained unclear, however.
Global reaction has consisted of calls to impartially investigate, rather than demands to punish Russia.
“The immediate priority has to be for investigators to gain access to the crash site,” said Mark Lyall Grant, the British ambassador to the UN. “There must be no interference or tampering with the evidence.”
A delegation from Europe traveled to the crash site on Friday afternoon to begin searching through wreckage that is spread out over fields between two villages in eastern Ukraine.
While separatists guarding the crash site allowed some Ukrainian government rescue teams to enter and begin collecting bodies, they were less cooperative with a team of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who wanted to secure a safe route for the investigation and salvaging operations.
Reuters quoted Thomas Greminger, chairman of the organization’s permanent council in Vienna, as saying that armed separatists had prevented the monitors from gaining full access to the site.
Obama said that US officials working through the flight manifest had identified one American, Quinn Lucas Schansman, who held dual US-Dutch citizenship.
Among the Dutch citizens on the plane was Karlijn Keijzer, a 25-year-old doctoral student and former rower at Indiana University, the school announced.
A contingent of scientists heading to an AIDS conference in Australia were among the victims. Other reports said that at least 80 children died. Most of the victims on the flight — which left from Amsterdam bound for Kuala Lumpur — were Dutch.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said Friday that Russian personnel could have offered technical assistance in operating the surface-to-air missile that downed the jetliner.
“Russia must stop destabilizing Ukraine,” Power said during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. “Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.”
The 15-member Security Council called unanimously for ‘‘a full, thorough and independent international investigation’’ into the downing of the plane.
And while Obama said he did not “want to get ahead of the facts,” he connected the dots in a way that strongly suggested Russia shared culpability. He accused Putin of fomenting the kind of atmosphere that would lead to such an attack, including supplying “heavy weapons’’ and “antiaircraft weapons” to the separatists.
‘‘Obviously, we’re beginning to draw some conclusions given the nature of the shot that was fired,’’ Obama said. ‘‘There are only certain types of antiaircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet.’’
He noted that over the last several weeks, Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a helicopter, and they have claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet.
“We know that they are heavily armed and that they are trained. And we know that that’s not an accident,” he said. “That is happening because of Russian support. So it is not possible for these separatists to function the way they’re functioning, to have the equipment that they have . . . without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”
If the plane was shot down by separatists, any motive was unclear. Obama declined to speculate, although some have suggested that the separatists were attempting to shoot down a Ukrainian military plane, not a civilian aircraft.
The Kremlin avoided addressing the mounting circumstantial evidence that the rebels fired the rockets, including recorded conversations released by Ukraine’s state security agency, which said it had intercepted phone calls of the separatists.
In one of the conversations, a male voice the security agency identifies as “Greek” asks, “So what’s going on there?”
“So, I mean, it’s definitely a civilian aircraft,” says a male voice identified as “Major.”
“Understood,” the first voice says. “Are there a lot of passengers?”
“A [expletive] lot,” the second voice says. “The debris fell right into people’s yards.”
The first voice later asks if there were any weapons. “None at all,” the second voice says.
In another conversation a male voice says, “Regarding the plane shot down in the area of Snezhnoye-Torez. It’s a civilian one. Crashed near Grabovo. Lots of women and children’s bodies. The Cossacks are there looking at it now. The TV reported that it’s an AN-26, a Ukrainian transport aircraft, but they’re telling me it’s got Malaysia Airlines written on it.”
“What was it doing on Ukrainian territory?” the second voice says.
“It must mean they were carrying spies. I don’t know. They shouldn’t [expletive] be flying here. There’s a war going on.”
Russian state-run media uncritically reported the claim of the pro-Russia rebels that they have no weapons that could hit an airliner at that altitude.
An article on the state-run radio Vesti FM website said that Russia’s Defense Ministry had located Ukrainian forces in the area with anti-aircraft weapons that could have shot down the jet.
Some Russian commentators have suggested that the attack was orchestrated by the United States as a way of putting pressure on Russia.
“A total attack of disinformation against Russia has begun!” wrote military commentator Alexander Zhilin. “The USA has taken a step toward world war.”
These comments reflect a popular view among Russian nationalists: that the United States supports an illegitimate government in Kiev as a way of waging a proxy war. Another nationalist political analyst, Sergey Markov, suggested in comments on his Facebook page that the Kiev government was trying to draw the United States into the conflict.
“It’s very likely that Kiev shot down this Boeing to provoke a direct American military involvement in the civil war in Ukraine on the side of the Kiev Junta,” Markov wrote.