Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: U.S. links Ukraine rebels to plane crash

The United States began building a case Friday linking pro-Russian separatists to the shocking downing of a passenger jet in Ukraine. A sombre President Barack Obama declared the deaths of those on board, including at least one American, an "outrage of unspeakable proportions."

World leaders urge Ukraine ceasefire to allow plane crash probe

An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. The Malaysian airliner Flight MH17 was brought down over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

The United States began building a case Friday linking pro-Russian separatists to the shocking downing of a passenger jet in Ukraine. A sombre President Barack Obama declared the deaths of those on board, including at least one American, an "outrage of unspeakable proportions."

Obama said the U.S. believes the Malaysia Airlines plane was felled by a surface-to-air missile launched from an area near the Ukraine-Russia border that is controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists. Even as he cautioned that the exact circumstances were still being determined, the president turned his sights on Russia, saying the insurgents would not be capable of carrying out such an attack without Moscow's support.

"We know that they are heavily armed and they are trained, and we know that that's not an accident," Obama said. "That is happening because of Russian support."

The president spoke shortly after Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, outlined preliminary evidence against Russia and the separatists during an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Power said separatists were spotted Thursday with an SA-11 anti-aircraft missile at a location close to the site where the plane came down and that they had boasted on social media sites about shooting down a plane, then later deleted those posts.

"The eyes of the world are on eastern Ukraine, and we are going to make sure that the truth is out," Obama said at the White House.

Power joined Obama in calling for an immediate international investigation, and she warned that the separatists and those supporting them would have "good reason to cover up evidence of their crime." The U.S. has called for evidence from the crash site to remain in Ukraine until investigators determine who is responsible.

International observers said gunmen stopped them examining the site properly when they got there on Friday.

In Toronto on Friday, Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander condemned the downing of the jet as "a brutal act of terror" after visiting the family of Andrei Anghel, a 24-year-old Ajax, Ont., medical student who died in the crash.

The American killed in the incident was identified as Quinn Lucas Schansman. Officials said they were still working to confirm whether any other U.S. citizens were on board the plane.

Passengers' nationalities

Malaysia Airlines listed the nationality of MH17 passengers:

  • 189 Dutch.
  • 29 Malaysians.
  • 27 Australians.
  • 12 Indonesians.
  • 9 Britons.
  • 4 Germans.
  • 4 Belgians.
  • 3 Filipinos.
  • 1 Canadian.
  • 1 American
  • 1 New Zealander.

The Ukraine government on Friday requested assistance from the International Civil Aviation Organization. The UN agency said it would be dispatching a team of accident investigators to lend its support.

For Obama, the downed plane adds new complexity to U.S. efforts to quell the months-long conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Increasingly stringent economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe, including a new round of penalties announced a day before the plane was shot down, have done little to change Russian President Vladimir Putin's approach.

Obama warned Russia anew on Friday that the U.S. has the capacity to increase the economic pain, but he outlined no specific potential actions. He did say he saw no U.S. military role in the conflict that has stemmed in part from Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

Earlier Friday, a Canadian statement to the UN Security Council stated that Canadians "are increasingly convinced that this is not only a tragedy, but also very likely the result of an outrageous crime" amid "mounting evidence" the airliner was brought down by a surface-to-air missile.

"Canada calls on all parties to the conflict in Ukraine to co-operate fully with an international investigation into this incident," the statement said. "Both Ukrainian authorities and international experts must be permitted full and secure access to the crash site, and must be provided access to all relevant data and evidence pertaining to the downing of this aircraft."

Calls for 'unfettered access'

All 298 people aboard the Malaysian plane were killed in Thursday's incident. The passengers, including scores of children, came from a dozen countries, spreading the impact of the Ukraine crisis around the globe.

Family members of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 react on a bus bringing them to a separate area at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on Thursday. (Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters)

U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki reiterated a call on Friday to grant "unfettered access" to investigators at the crash site, noting that a 75-minute period a team of monitors was able to spend there was inadequate.

Among the monitors with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe was Canadian Michael Bociurkiw.

Reached by phone in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, Bociurkiw told CBC Radio's As it Happens that the group's efforts were hampered by threatening behaviour by armed guards in the rebel-held territory.

"We were greeted by physically agitated armed individuals who clearly weren't happy to see us there," he said. "They kept us to a very small area, they were aggressive, threatening, and we were there to really just establish the facts. For example, to see how much security there is in the perimeter of the crash site, to see how many bodies were there, to see whether the bodies had been tampered with. We were able to do very, very little of that because of the behaviour of the guards."

Bociurkiw added that the roughly 25 investigators in Ukraine consider Saturday to be a "crunch day" to inspect the site, as bodies are starting to become badly decomposed.

"The longer the bodies are left out there, the more difficult it's going to be to identify them, to remove them. What's needed right away is refrigeration units to store them, experts to help identify them, and also we're quite concerned about the lack of security in the area," he said.

Obama said the MH17 disaster would serve as "a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine," and that those repercussions may not necessarily be contained and localized.

The president has spoken with several world leaders since the crash, including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. On Friday, he called British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss possible responses to the crisis. He also spoke with Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, whose country lost 27 citizens in the crash.

Abbott echoed calls for an international investigation. 

"Australia takes a very dim view of countries which facilitate the killing of Australians," he said.

Evidence SA-11 missile fired

Obama learned of the plane crash during a phone call Thursday with Putin. On Friday, the president stopped short of blaming Putin for the downing of the plane, but he said the Russian leader could bring the broader conflict to an end.

"He has the most control over that situation, and so far at least he has not exercised it," the president said.

[Russian President Vladimir Putin] has the most control over that situation, and so far at least he has not exercised it.- U.S. President Barack Obama

A U.S. official said all available evidence, including satellite imagery, pointed to the plane being shot down with an SA-11 anti-aircraft missile fired by pro-Russian separatist forces. The official said the U.S. detected three separate events associated with the shootdown: the launching of the missile from the Ukraine side of the border, the missile's impact with the plane and the plane slamming into the ground.

That official was not authorized to discuss U.S. intelligence matters publicly by name and commented only on condition of anonymity.

Power, during her remarks at the United Nations, said Ukrainian forces as well as the separatists have SA-11 systems in their inventory. However, she said the U.S. was not aware of those systems being in the area of the shooting, and she noted that Ukrainian air defences have not fired any missiles during the dispute with Russia.

The State Department said the FBI and National Transportation Security Board were each sending at least one agent to Ukraine, and perhaps more later, to assist with the crash investigation.

A command centre has been set up at the State Department, where officials from agencies participating in the delegation gathered Friday morning for a briefing from the CIA on the political and military situation.

With files from CBC News, Reuters