Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the downing of a Malaysian Air (MAS) jet that killed all 298 people on board in an incident that may prove to be a turning point in the conflict between the countries.
As moves to investigate the crash got under way, Ukraine’s state security service said it intercepted phone conversations among pro-Russian militants discussing a missile strike that knocked the Boeing Co. 777 on Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur out of the sky 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russian border yesterday.
President Vladimir Putin, who’s denied Russian involvement in the fighting in Ukraine, said the government in Kiev bore responsibility because the crash wouldn’t have occurred without the current strife with separatists battling regular forces in two eastern regions of the country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Ukraine’s version of events, telling Rossiya 24 television he’d “hardly heard a single true statement” from the Kiev government in recent months.
“Because of the scale of the disaster and its international implications -- it involved casualties from Europe and from Australia and from Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia -- there will be bigger international, including American, attention to what’s happening,” Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia in Singapore, said by phone. “It will raise even further the profile of the war in Ukraine as something of international significance.”
Russia’s Micex stock index fell 1.7 percent at 2:30 p.m. in Moscow, following a 2.3 percent decline yesterday.
A total of 181 bodies have been recovered from the crash site, and the remains will be sent to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrii Sybiga told reporters in Kiev today.
“Russia, which is financing terrorists, should acknowledge its responsibility,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told regional governors in Kiev today. “We call on all international governments to help us in the probe.”
The disaster happened a day after the U.S. imposed further sanctions on Russia over the conflict. President Barack Obama called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to offer condolences and “immediate assistance to support a prompt international investigation,” according to a White House statement. The United Nations Security Council is holding an emergency meeting on the incident later today.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said today indications that the plane was shot down must be taken “very, very seriously.” She told reporters in Berlin she was issuing a “very clear call for the Russian president and the Russian government to assume their responsibility to ensure that there’s a political solution.” She urged the setting-up of a “verification regime” to ensure weapons aren’t being moved across the Russia-Ukraine frontier.
Merkel said the latest incident wouldn’t trigger more European Union sanctions against Russia on its own. “Events have shown that the priority has to be on a political solution,” she said.
Flight 17 was at about 33,000 feet (10,000 meters), taking a route over eastern Ukraine that several other carriers avoided, putting it at an altitude cleared for commercial traffic, according to navigation agency Eurocontrol.
Ukraine’s air-traffic control service has now closed down the airspace above regions where fighting has been taking place, according to a statement on its website. Flights aren’t being allowed above the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and part of the Kharkiv region.
Flight 17 carried 283 passengers and 15 crew members, according to a tally by the airline. The bulk of the passengers -- 173 -- were from the Netherlands. There were 44 Malaysians on board, including crew, with 27 Australians the next largest group, as well passengers from Indonesia, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand. The nationality of 20 passengers remains unverified.
Andrei Purgin, a deputy premier of the rebels’ self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said the plane’s flight recorders had not yet been recovered as the separatists await the arrival of investigators.
“We have not found anything so far,” Purgin said by phone today. “We are just cordoning off the site and we are waiting for experts. The radius is huge -- up to 12 kilometers. And the plane fell on residential blocks, fields, forest. It is not easy to find black boxes.”
The Associated Press cited an unnamed rebel official as saying eight of the plane’s 12 recording devices had been located, without elaborating.
Purgin yesterday denied the rebels were behind the attack, saying the Ukrainian army shot down the plane by mistake and the separatists didn’t have a weapon that could reach that altitude.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on its website late yesterday that the army hadn’t used missiles in its operation against the separatists. The army “did not fire a single rocket” it said.
U.S. military and intelligence agencies said that while they’re still investigating, it increasingly appears Flight 17 was downed by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile known by its NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly.
There is a growing belief that Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine or Russia may have mistaken the jet for a Ukrainian military transport plane, said two Pentagon officials who asked not to identified because the details are private.
The Gadfly, known locally as the Buk-M, is a radar-guided weapon that can find a target at a range of 140 miles and reach altitudes as high about 72,000 feet, according to the army-technology.com website.
“The separatists could have only gotten that capability from Russia,” U.S. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said when asked what the ramifications would be if pro-Russian forces shot down the jetliner. “Therefore the culpable party here is Vladimir Putin.”
Ukraine has more proof beyond the telephone intercepts of rebels’ involvement, Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, acting chairman of the state security service, said in Kiev, without giving details.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine had been using a tracking station linked to a Buk-M missile system near Donetsk yesterday, according to the RIA Novosti news service.
“This will turn a lot of public opinion against Russia and this will have an impact on world leaders,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview. “It gives the Ukrainian government all the reason to continue and intensify its offensive against the rebels -- and they’ll now get full international backing to do so.”
Putin called for a thorough investigation into the crash and said it shows the “necessity for the quickest peaceful resolution of the acute crisis in Ukraine,” as he sent condolences to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the Kremlin said in an e-mailed statement today.
It was the second major disaster for Malaysian Airline System Bhd. this year. Flight 370 vanished with 239 people on board in March en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, sparking what has become the world’s longest search for a missing jetliner in modern aviation history.
The aircraft’s last maintenance check was on July 11, Malaysia Airlines said in a statement on its website. The plane, which was built in 1997, “had a clean bill of health” and all communications systems were “functioning normally,” it said.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters today that almost all Asia-Pacific airlines use the same route over Ukraine, crossing the same airspace. “In the hours before the incident, a number of other passenger aircraft from different carriers used the same route,” he said.
Separatist groups in the Donetsk region agreed to close the crash site and to provide safe access and security guarantees to investigators and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitors, the OSCE said in a statement.
A White House official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said that over the past month, the flow of heavy weapons from Russia and support for Russian separatists has increased. Russia denies it’s trying to foment the unrest.
Ukraine has already lost multiple aircraft to the rebels. Earlier this week, the government said an An-26 transport plane was hit by a “powerful weapon” not previously used by the separatists, probably from inside Russia.
“One can easily imagine that this will heat up the propaganda battle between the two sides even more,” Gernot Erler, the German government’s coordinator for relations with Russia, told ARD television today.
Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed in fighting and 25 wounded in the past 24 hours, Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters in Kiev early this afternoon. He said government forces had been attacked 19 times by the rebels over the period.