KIEV, Ukraine — A Malaysia Airlines passenger jet with 298 people on board crashed Thursday after apparently being struck by a missile over an area of eastern Ukraine where government forces have been battling pro-Russia separatists. There were no survivors.
Ukrainian officials accused the separatists of downing the plane with a missile from a Soviet-era anti-aircraft system and vowed to find those responsible, while leaders of the self-declared Donetsk Peoples Republic, the region where the plane fell, denied any involvement. A social network post by a separatist commander, however, suggested that his men may have mistaken the plane for a Ukrainian military aircraft.
In Washington, a U.S. official said that “all indications are the aircraft was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.” The official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that further analysis would be required before a final determination was made.
“Where that missile came from is an intense point of focus, and we are looking at all the information we have,” the official said, adding that the United States “has a considerable number of intelligence assets focused on that area.” Those assets could include satellites that can track rocket launches.
If confirmed that a missile downed the aircraft, the crash likely would mark a turning point in the conflict between Kiev and pro-Russia rebels that has claimed hundreds of lives since a Moscow-backed government was driven from power by pro-Western protesters in February.
Russian President Vladimir Putin might have to distance himself — at least in the short term — from the rebels if concrete proof emerges that they shot down the plane. “Even he cannot condone the targeting of a commercial airliner,” said Stephen Long, a security expert at Richmond University in Virginia.
In his first extensive comments on the crash, however, Putin suggested the blame lay with the government in Kiev. “Of course, the state over whose territory it happened is responsible for this terrible tragedy,” Putin told a meeting of top Kremlin aides, according to a transcript released by his office.
Videos and photographs posted on English- and Russian-language social media showed a huge column of smoke billowing from the crash site near the town of Snizhne, flaming wreckage, bodies, luggage and debris bearing the red and white colors of Malaysia Airlines.
Malaysia Airlines said the flight was bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. U.S. officials said they were trying to determine if any Americans had been on board the Boeing 777-200ER.
To back up its charge of rebel responsibility, the Ukrainian government posted on YouTube a recording of what it said was an intercepted telephone call, in which a rebel commander tells a Russian military intelligence officer that his men had shot down a passenger jet.
In the recording, the pro-Russia separatist, identified as Igor Bezler, purportedly informs the Russian, identified as Col. Vasily Geranin, that his men at the scene found “lots of bodies . . . civilian stuff, aircraft seats, medical supplies, towels, toilet paper” and the passport of an Indonesian student.
President Barack Obama, addressing an audience in Wilmington, Del., called the crash a “tragedy.” Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to a conference in Detroit, said the aircraft was apparently shot down.
“I say apparently because we don’t have all the details,” he said.
Biden, who conferred before his appearance by telephone with Obama and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, said that a team of U.S. experts was being sent at the Ukrainian government’s request to help “determine what happened.” Obama also spoke to Poroshenko and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Putin also offered help. “I already gave authority to the military departments to provide all necessary assistance in the investigation of this crime,” he said.
The Ukrainian government, which opened its own investigation, is unlikely to accept Putin’s offer except to demand the return of the black box if, as the German web site Der Spiegel reported, Russian separatists had found the flight data recorder and handed it to Russian authorities. Other news reports said the black box had not been recovered.
The crisis over Ukraine has fueled international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War, with the United States and the European Union lining up behind the new Ukrainian government elected in May and slapping sanctions on Russia. Moscow, which denounces the Ukrainian government as illegitimate and “fascist,” has backed the rebels since it annexed Ukraine’s southeastern Crimea region in March after a bloodless occupation by Russian troops.
In recent days, the Obama administration has accused Russia of stoking tensions in eastern Ukraine and providing sophisticated weapons to separatist forces. On Wednesday, the Obama administration had announced new sanctions on major Russian companies in retaliation for what it said were hostile Russian actions in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials charged that Russian separatists near the town of Torez shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 with a Soviet-era BUK mobile anti-aircraft missile system. They insisted that the plane was not within range of their own air defense units.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, wrote on his Facebook page that the passenger jet was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet when it was hit. The BUK system has a range of 72,000 feet.
Operating the system — tracking the aircraft, locking the missile onto the target and firing it — would require a high degree of training and skill. But such skills might not be difficult to find among Ukrainians on both sides of the conflict — Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union, long has had the BUK system in its arsenal.
Russian news outlets reported that pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and the neighboring self-declared independent republic of Luhansk didn’t have anti-aircraft systems capable of taking down the jet. But those reports contradicted earlier reports that BUK systems had been captured by the separatists.
Andrei Lysenko, a spokesman for Poroshenko’s National Security Council, said that a Ukrainian Sukhoi 25 ground attack fighter was shot down Wednesday evening by missiles fired from a village just inside Russia’s side of the border with eastern Ukraine. The pilot parachuted out, he said. On Wednesday, pro-Russia rebels claimed to have hit two Ukrainian Sukhoi 25s, one of which Ukrainian officials said landed safely.
Ukrainian officials also noted that at about the time of the Malaysia Airlines crash, Igor Strelkov, a pro-Russia separatist leader, bragged on V Kontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, that his men had shot down what he thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane.
“It’s tumbling down near the Progress Mine,” he wrote in the post that was soon deleted, but preserved in screen shots. “We told them not to fly in our skies.”
Moreover, the state-run Voice of Russia web site, quoting the RIA Novosti news agency, reported on June 29 that pro-Russia fighters of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic Self-Defense Forces had captured an undisclosed number of BUK systems when they overran a Ukrainian air defense base.
As Russian news reports alleged Ukrainian involvement, Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, wrote on a Facebook post that “Putin and his gang understood they had committed an act of terrorism. They panicked and started releasing disinformation.”
European air control ordered commercial airliners not to overfly Ukraine. Several European and Russian air carriers announced they would be avoiding Ukrainian airspace. Whether that meant all of Ukraine or the east of the nation was not immediately clear.
The Federal Aviation Administration told U.S. carriers on April 3 to avoid airspace over Crimea, but the directive didn’t cover eastern Ukraine.
By coincidence, Obama was on the telephone with Putin when the first reports of the crash began emerging, the White House said. It gave no further details of the conversation, except to say that the pair discussed the latest round of U.S. economic sanctions on Russia, imposed a day earlier, for its support of the separatists.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest characterized the conversation between Obama and Putin as “very businesslike.”
Obama made the call at the request of Putin to discuss the latest U.S. sanctions, which targeted major banks and energy companies, Russian defense companies and individuals the United States said were responsible for the continuing support of separatists battling government forces in eastern Ukraine.
The incident comes less than six months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard. No trace of the aircraft has been found.
McClatchy special correspondent Iva reported from Kiev. Landay reported from Washington and Schofield reported from Oslo, Norway. Contributing to this report were Claudia Himmelreich in Oslo and Anita Kumar and James Rosen in Washington.