Malaysian airliner crash: world leaders call for answers
World leaders demanded an international investigation into the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with 298 people on board over eastern Ukraine in a tragedy that could mark a pivotal moment in the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Two US officials said Washington strongly suspected the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow.
There were no survivors from yesterday's crash, which left wreckage and bodies scattered across miles of rebel-held territory near the border with Russia.
Makeshift white flags marked where bodies lay in corn fields and among the debris. Others, stripped bare by the force of the crash, had been covered by polythene sheeting weighed down by stones, one marked with a flower in remembrance.
The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula a month later.
While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the United States has been more aggressive than the European Union.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an initial response, said it was too early to decide on further sanctions before it was known exactly what had happened to the plane.
Kiev and Moscow immediately blamed each other for the disaster, triggering a new phase in their propaganda war.
The plane crashed about 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Russia near the regional capital of Donetsk, an area that is a stronghold of rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian government forces and have brought down military aircraft.
Leaders of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic denied any involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the intercontinental flight.
Russia's Defence Ministry later pointed the finger at Ukrainian ground forces, saying said it had picked up radar activity from a Ukrainian missile system south of Donetsk when the airliner was brought down, Russian media reported.
The Ukrainian security council said no missiles had been fired from the armouries of its armed forces.
The Ukrainian government released recordings it said were of Russian intelligence officers discussing the shooting down of a civilian airliner by rebels who may have mistaken it for a Ukrainian military plane.
The United States called for a ceasefire to allow access to the crash site, as did Merkel.
Separatists told the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a security and rights agency, they would ensure safe access to the scene for international experts.
An OSCE spokesman said the organisation, which has monitors in the region, expected to reach the site later today.
The plane's two black boxes - voice and data recorders - were quickly recovered, but since the crash site was in rebel hands it was unclear who would analyse them and whether they could in any case 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.
Ukraine said on Friday that up to 181 bodies had been found. The airline said it was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew.
Ukraine has closed air space over the east of the country.
US Vice President Joe Biden said it appeared the downing of the jetliner was not an accident and that it apparently was "blown out of the sky".
"While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fuelled by Russian support for the separatists, including through arms, materiel, and training," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
More than half of the dead, 173 people, were Dutch. Forty-four were Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, nine British, four German, four Belgian, three Filipino and one each from Canada, New Zealand and Romania. All 15 crew were Malaysian.
Nationalities of the others aboard were unclear.
A number of those on board were travelling to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, including Joep Lange, an influential Dutch expert.
Ukraine accused pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian military intelligence officers, of firing a long-range, Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile.
Russian President Vladimir Putin - accused by the West of backing the rebels in Ukraine - blamed Kiev for renewing its offensive against rebels two weeks ago after a ceasefire failed to hold. The Kremlin leader called it a "tragedy" but did not say who brought the Boeing 777 down.
He later called for a "thorough and unbiased" investigation.
US President Barack Obama said evidence from the crash must remain in Ukraine so international investigators have a chance to look at all of it, officials said.
The OSCE said a "contact group" of senior representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE had held a video conference with the separatists, who pledged to cooperate with Ukrainian authorities in the investigation.
Kiev complained that separatists prevented Ukrainian officials from reaching the site, where pro-Russian separatists said they had found one of the "black box" recorders. Rescue workers recovered a second recorder today.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called for a transparent international investigation. The UN Security Council will discuss the issue on Friday.