A sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired from a part of Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, according to available evidence, President Barack Obama said Friday.
He confirmed that one American, Quinn Lucas Schansman, a dual U.S.-Dutch citizen, was among the 298 people killed in the Thursday incident. And Obama made it clear he blamed Russia for inflaming tension in the region, as the tragedy threatened to further poison already fragile U.S.-Russia relations.
“There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet,” Obama said. “We have increasing confidence that it came from areas controlled by the separatists.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went further, suggesting before the U.N. Security Council that Russians may have been involved in the incident.
“It is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel,” she said. “We cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems.”
Ukrainian officials have said they think Russian separatists near the town of Torez shot the airliner down with a Soviet-era BUK mobile anti-aircraft missile system.
Among those on the plane were nearly 100 people going to an international AIDS conference scheduled to begin Sunday in Melbourne, Australia, Obama said.
Obama insisted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who earlier this week said U.S.-Russia relations were nearing a “dead end,” could put an end to the violence.
“What we do know is that the violence that’s taking place there is facilitated in part — in large part — because of Russian support, and they have the ability to move those separatists in a different direction,” Obama said. “If Mr. Putin makes a decision that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then it will stop.”
Russia, Obama said, “has continued to violate Ukrainian sovereignty and to support violent separatists. It has also failed to use its influence to press the separatists to abide by a cease-fire. That’s why, together with our allies, we’ve imposed growing costs on Russia.”
Obama on Wednesday imposed new sanctions on Russia, aimed at its banks and energy industry.
Putin said the sanctions were “driving Russian-American relations into a dead end.”
At an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting Friday, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin repeated the Kremlin’s charge that the Ukrainian government was to blame for the tragedy, saying its aviation authority should have prohibited the Malaysia Airlines pilot from flying over the conflict zone.
“Why did the Ukrainian aviation dispatcher send a plane to an area of conflict?” Churkin asked, adding that international law provides “for the possibility for a timely closure by the state of an area that is dangerous for flights.” Churkin said that it was Kiev that had obstructed meaningful cease-fire negotiations.
Power noted that the aircraft was cruising at 33,000 feet at a speed “typical for an airliner along an established flight corridor frequented by commercial traffic.” She noted that its transponder was transmitting a code that corresponded with its flight plan and flight data that “were publicly available on the Internet.”
Power said a Western journalist had spotted an SA-11 mobile anti-aircraft missile launcher — part of the Buk series of air-defense weapons — near the town of Snizhne in the area of the crash site just “hours before the incident.”
Power also noted that “separatists initially claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane and posted videos that are now being connected to the Malaysia airlines crash” and “also boasted on social media about shooting down a plane.” They “later deleted these messages,” she said.
While the Ukrainian military has SA-11 anti-aircraft missile systems, the United States was not aware that any of its missiles were in the vicinity of the crash, Power said.
“More importantly, since the beginning of this crisis, Ukrainian air defenses have not fired a single missile, despite several alleged violations of their airspace by Russian aircraft,” she said.
Pro-Moscow separatists shot down two Ukrainian planes last month and claimed to have struck two others this week, she said.
Obama called for a credible international investigation into the Malaysia Airlines incident and an immediate cease-fire in the area.
Several U.S. government agencies are expected to aid in the investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI will focus on the causes, while Obama said the immediate task will be “on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts.”
Other nations joined in the call for a thorough probe.
“We call on all parties who have any influence on the matter to grant unfettered access to the crash site to emergency responders and investigators alike,” said Karel J.G. van Oosterom, the Dutch ambassador to the United Nations.
In remarks quoted by the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia also was concerned about the shelling of its territory from Ukraine. He criticized Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for denouncing the accident as “a terrorist act,” saying such statements were intended to influence the investigation. He called for a video conference between Kiev and representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic to discuss a cease-fire.
In addition to the lone American, Malaysia Airlines identified 16 other nationalities of passengers killed in the crash, including 189 from the Netherlands, 44 from Malaysia and 27 from Australia. Passengers also were from Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, the Philippines, Canada and New Zealand. Four passengers’ nationalities have not been verified.
Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines took pains to absolve itself of any legal liability it might face in the second major airline disaster this year involving one of its planes. It noted that Eurocontrol, which determines civil aircraft flight paths over Europe, had approved the flight plan and that the route over Ukrainian airspace is routinely used for Europe to Asia flights.
Another flight was on the same route at the time of the crash, Malaysia Airlines said.
It also noted that the flight, designated MH17, did not fly into “or request to fly into” an area over Crimea that the International Civil Aviation Organization had warned might be risky.
“At all times, MH17 was in airspace approved by the ICAO,” the airline said.
Tony Tyler, the director general of the International Air Transport Association, the trade association for the world’s airlines, said the airline’s position was understandable.
“It is very similar to driving a car. If the road is open, you assume that it is safe. If it’s closed you find an alternate route,” Tyler said.