UPDATE: The day after a missile shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight over separatist-held eastern Ukraine, the international community faced the challenges of investigating a civilian plane crash in a war zone.
Ukraine accused the separatists of removing evidence that could prove the rebels fired the surface-to-air missile that brought down the plane. The government in Kiev said militiamen have removed 38 bodies from the crash site and have taken them to the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
The rebels are also “seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia,” the Ukrainian government said today. A separatist leader denied those charges and invited international cooperation in cleaning up the crash. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent a 24-member team to monitor the site, but team members say their movements have been limited by the separatists.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a phone call today that an independent, international commission led by the International Civil Aviation Organization should be granted swift access to the crash site, said government spokesman Georg Streiter.
Ukraine says it has proof that Russia supplied the missile that shot down the plane. Putin has refused to acknowledge the rebels could have caused the crash, insisting, “The government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy.”
UPDATE (12:28 p.m. EDT, July 18): President Barack Obama confirmed the American position that the missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine was fired from inside rebel territory. In a speech from the White House today, he called on all sides, but singled out Russia in particular, to peacefully work out the conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia separatists in the eastern part of the country.
“If Mr. Putin makes a decision [not to allow] heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine across the Ukrainian-Russian border, it will stop,” Obama said.
Obama stopped short of blaming Russia for providing the rebels with the surface-to-air missile used to shoot down the plane, but he hinted it could be a possibility.
“It’s not possible for these separatists to function the way they’re functioning … without sophisticated equipment, sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia,” Obama said. He also took a moment to honor the approximately 100 AIDS researchers who were on the plane en route to a conference in Australia, saying they were men and women who had “dedicated their own lives to saving the lives of others.”
UPDATE (11:20 a.m. EDT, July 18): The U.S. envoy to the United Nations said the missile that brought down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 likely came from the eastern part of Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists. The UN Security Council has called for “a full, thorough, and independent international investigation” into the incident. A team of international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who visited the site today reported rebels granted them only limited access to the wreckage.
OUR EARLIER REPORT (10:20 a.m. EDT, July 18): As dawn broke over Rozsypne, Ukraine, a motley crew of searchers fanned out across a scene of unimaginable horror to help comb through the wreckage of the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down yesterday.
Emergency workers, police officers, and even off-duty coal miners made their way gingerly through fields of sunflowers and crops looking for parts of the plane and the 298 people aboard. Villagers used sheets and pieces of plastic to cover human remains. Reporters at the crash site described heartbreaking scenes of people still buckled into their seats or lying on the ground in unnatural positions.
By midday, searchers had located 181 bodies. According to the airline, passengers included 189 Dutch, 29 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos, and one person each from Canada and New Zealand. The manifest included children.
Search and recovery efforts are hampered by ongoing tension in the region. Nataliya Bystro, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's emergency services, said rebels who control the area were interfering with the operation. Rebel commanders issued conflicting reports about whether they have recovered the plane’s black boxes, which would give clues about what happened just before the plane broke apart and came raining down about 25 miles from the Russian border.
But U.S. intelligence officials confirmed a surface-to-air missile downed the plane. They just don’t yet know who fired it.
Ukrainian officials and pro-Russian separatists both deny firing the missile, but Ukraine’s foreign ministry released audio recordings of phone calls purportedly to be between rebel commanders and Russian advisors indicating the separatists shot down the plane. In one call, a rebel commander said they fired on a Ukrainian military transport plane. In a second call, another commander admits the missile hit a passenger plane, sounding surprised.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a cease-fire Friday and urged both sides to come to the negotiating table. On Thursday, Putin blamed Ukraine for the accident, a claim he did not repeat today. Russia denies any involvement in the incident, but Putin did not address questions about whether his government had provided the rebels with surface-to-air missiles capable of taking down a plane flying at that altitude.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott angrily suggested Russia had something to hide.
“The initial response of the Russian ambassador was to blame Ukraine for this and I have to say that is deeply, deeply unsatisfactory,” he said. “It’s very important that we don’t allow Russia to prevent an absolutely comprehensive investigation so that we can find out exactly what happened here. … This is not an accident, it’s a crime.”
U.S. President Barack Obama plans to make a statement about the downed plane later this morning.