KIEV, Ukraine – Emergency workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners – dressed in overalls and covered in soot – spread out Friday across the sunflower fields and villages of eastern Ukraine, searching the wreckage of the Malaysian plane shot down as it flew miles above the country’s battlefield.
The attack Thursday afternoon killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations and left enormous questions unanswered.
U.S. intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, but could not say who fired it. The Ukraine government in Kiev, the separatist pro-Russia rebels they are fighting in the east and the Russia government that Ukraine accuses of supporting the rebels all deny shooting the passenger plane down. Moscow also denies backing the rebels.
By midday, 181 bodies had been located, according to emergency workers at the sprawling crash site.
Ukraine has called for an international probe to determine who attacked the plane and the Unites States has offered to help. But access to the site remained difficult and dangerous. The road from Donetsk, the largest city in the region, to the crash site was marked by five rebel checkpoints Friday, with document checks at each.
Separatist rebels who control the crash say they have recovered most of its black boxes and were considering what to do with them. Their statement had profound implications for the integrity of the plane crash investigation.
An angry Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott demanded an independent inquiry into the downing.
“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,” he added.
For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Kiev’s accusations that Moscow could be behind the attack.
“Regarding those claims from Kiev that we allegedly did it ourselves: I have not heard a truthful statement from Kiev for months,” he told the Rossiya 24 television channel.
The crash site was spread out over fields between two villages in eastern Ukraine – Rozsypne and Hrabove – and fighting apparently still continued nearby. In the distance, the thud of Grad missile launchers being fired could be heard Friday morning.
In the sunflower fields around Rozsypne, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border, lines of men disappeared into the thick, tall growth that was over their heads. One fainted after finding a body. Another body was covered in a coat.
In Hrabove, several miles away, huge numbers of simple sticks, some made from tree branches, were affixed with red or white rags to mark spots where body parts were found.
Ukraine Foreign Ministry representative Andriy Sybiga said 181 bodies had been found, citing local emergency workers. He said the bodies will be taken to Kharkiv, a government-controlled city 270 kilometers (170 miles) to the north, for identification.
Among the debris were watches and smashed mobile phones, charred boarding passes and passports. An “I (heart) Amsterdam” T-shirt and a guidebook to Bali hinted at holiday plans.
Large chunks of the Boeing 777 that bore the airline’s red, white and blue markings lay strewn over one field. The cockpit and one turbine lay a kilometer (a half-mile) apart, and residents said the tail landed another 10 kilometers (six miles) away.
One rebel militiaman in Rozsypne told The Associated Press that the plane’s fuselage showed signs of being struck by a projectile.
The area has seen heavy fighting between government troops and pro-Russia separatists, and rebels had bragged about shooting down two Ukrainian military jets in the region just a day earlier.
Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the downing, saying it was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions – but did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk described the downing as an “international crime” whose perpetrators would have to be punished in an international tribunal.
“Yesterday’s terrible tragedy will change our lives. The Russians have done it now,” he was cited as saying by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
An assistant to the insurgency’s military commander, Igor Girkin, said Friday on condition of anonymity that eight out of the plane’s 12 recording devices had been located at the crash site. He did not elaborate. Since airplanes normally have both a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, it was not exactly clear what devices he was referring to.
He said Girkin was still considering whether to give international crash investigators access to the sprawling crash site. Any investigators would need specific permission from the rebel leadership before they could safely film or take photos at the crash site, he said.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said the plane was flying at about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lay repeatedly insisted that the airline’s path was an internationally approved route and denied accusations that Malaysia Airlines was trying to save fuel and money by taking a more direct flight path across Ukraine.
“I want to stress that this route is an approved path that is used by many airlines including 15 Asia-Pacific airlines. We have not been informed that the path cannot be used,” he said
Malaysia’s prime minister said there was no distress call before the plane went down.
Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued previous warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March. Within hours of the crash Thursday, several airlines announced they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.
On Friday, Ukraine’s state aviation service closed the airspace over two regions currently gripped by separatist fighting – Donetsk and Luhansk – and Russian aviation regulators said Russian airlines have suspended all flights over Ukraine.
At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines updated its nationality count of passengers, saying the plane carried 173 Dutch, 24 Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, 9 British, 4 German, 4 Belgian, 3 Filipino and one person each from Canada and New Zealand.
Passengers on the plane included a large contingent of world-renowned AIDS researchers and activists headed to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. News of their deaths sparked an outpouring of grief across the global scientific community.
In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of victims were meeting with counselors at the international airport. A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming to visit the family for the first time in five years.
“She called me just before she boarded the plane and said, ‘See you soon,’ ” Akmar said.
In the Netherlands, flags were flying at half-staff across the country as residents mourned the victims.