GRABOVE, Ukraine: The United States yesterday built a case that pro-Moscow separatists downed a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine with a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people on board — with the possible technical assistance of Russians.
The first international monitors struggled to gain adequate access at the gruesome crash site in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, which is strewn with bodies and wreckage.
Shock and grief at the tragedy turned to fury and vows that justice would be done, as heart-rending stories began to emerge of the men, women and children aboard the doomed Boeing 777.
US President Barack Obama presented the latest conclusions of US intelligence analysts about the “unspeakable” carnage.
He cranked up political pressure on President Vladimir Putin to take action, and on Europe to do more to punish his actions in Ukraine.
“Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” Obama said.
Obama said he did not yet want to draw definitive conclusions about what exactly happened to Flight MH-17, but said only a sophisticated missile could destroy a passenger jet flying at over 30,000 feet.
He said previous attacks by separatists on government aircraft in Ukraine suggested the rebels had benefited from Russian technical expertise.
“A group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes, or they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia,” Obama said.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said the complexity of the SA-11 missile Washington believes was used in the attack would likely preclude it being solely operated by separatist forces.
“Thus we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems,” Power said.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said: “It strains credulity that (the missile) can be used by separatists without some measure of Russian support and assistance.”
A group of international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were able to gain partial access to one of the crash sites but were blocked from going further by armed rebels “for their own” safety.
The OSCE team — which was already on the ground monitoring the fighting in Ukraine — said they were not there to investigate the causes of the crash but to make sure the perimeters of the site were secured and to oversee the handling of the victims’ remains.
Swiss OSCE representative Thomas Greminger said 17 monitors had very limited access to the site for 75 minutes, but had withdrawn to the city of Donetsk for security reasons.
“We call on all those who have influence on the actors on the ground to make sure that this access improves,” Greminger said.
The world was reeling from the shock loss of hundreds of civilians — from AIDS researchers en route to a conference in Australia, to Dutch families off on holiday, to Muslims headed home to celebrate Eid with family.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte promised that those responsible for shooting down the jet would not get away with it.
“Should it emerge that it was an attack, I will personally see to it that the perpetrators are brought to justice,” Rutte said.
Local authorities said 182 bodies had been recovered from the crash site but dozens of severely mutilated corpses remained scattered about.
Malaysia Airlines said 283 passengers and 15 crew were aboard the plane — including, at last count, 189 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians and 12 Indonesians.
Obama revealed that one dual US-Dutch national was also killed.
Diplomatic manoeuvring quickened yesterday — and with it pressure on Moscow mounted, with Obama blaming Russia for creating the conditions in which the jet was shot down.
The US leader prodded Europe to do more to restrain Putin, who he said had the power to rein in separatists but refused to use it.
“I think that this certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” Obama said.
The UN Security Council unanimously demanded a “full, thorough and independent investigation” at the start of a meeting on the Ukraine crisis that saw fraught exchanges between Western countries and Russia.
Local rescue workers said that at least one of the plane’s black boxes had been found, but the whereabouts of the vital data recorder were unknown.
Comments attributed to a pro-Russian rebel chief suggested his men may have downed the plane by mistake, believing it to be a Ukrainian army transport aircraft. Ukraine released recordings of what they said was an intercepted call between an insurgent commander and a Russian intelligence officer as they realised they had shot down a passenger jet.
Putin said Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash but stated he was in contact with Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko and Kiev to achieve “long-term peace”.
Separatist leaders ruled out a truce to allow the plane probe to go ahead and clashes continued yesterday, with local authorities saying 20 civilians were killed in the rebel-held city of Lugansk, some 100 kilometres to the northeast of the crash site.
SYDNEY: Qantas Airways and several other airlines altered their flight paths some time ago to avoid Ukrainian airspace after fighting flared up in the region, raising questions about why others did not do the same.
The issue of whether to avoid flying over conflict zones has come into sharp focus after the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on Thursday, killing all 298 people on board.
International civil aviation regulators had imposed no restrictions on crossing an area where pro-Russian rebels are fighting Ukrainian forces, and the majority of carriers had continued to use a route popular with long-distance flights from Europe to southeast Asia.
But the fact that a handful of companies decided to circumnavigate the disputed territory underlined inconsistencies in airlines’ approach to passenger safety.
Aviation experts said piecemeal and potentially conflicting advice from aviation regulators further confused the situation, and called for clearer guidance on which areas to avoid.
In addition to Qantas, Air Berlin, Asiana Airlines, Korean Air Lines and Taiwan’s China Airlines decided to avoid Ukrainian airspace several months ago.
Cathay Pacific changed its routes some time ago, but did not specify when, and a source familiar with the situation said British Airways had also been avoiding the area where the flight went down.
The European Aviation Safety Agency did issue a safety bulletin, accompanied by recommendations from both the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation and Brussels-based Eurocontrol, on April 3, advising that Crimean airspace should be avoided. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March.
But those directives did not apply to the airspace over Ukraine being traversed by Flight MH17 when it was brought down.
The International Air Transport Association said airlines depended on governments and air traffic control authorities to advise which air space was available for flight, and that safety was carriers’ “top priority”.
German authorities warned the country’s 144 aviation companies against flying over eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities had closed the flight path from the ground to around 32,000 feet, according to Eurocontrol, the agency responsible for coordinating European airspace. Flight MH17 was flying 1,000 feet above that.