WASHINGTON – The United States began building a case Friday that would pin the blame for the downing of the passenger jet over Ukraine on separatist forces supported by Russia, a disaster that could dramatically escalate the crisis in Ukraine.
President Barack Obama said evidence so far indicates that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists. He noted it wasn’t the first time the separatists had shot down planes in the region, adding that a “steady flow of support from Russia” had included heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weapons.
He called for an immediate cease-fire to allow for a full investigation
“This was a global tragedy,” Obama said. “An Asian airliner was destroyed in European skies filled with citizens from many countries, so there has to be a credible international investigation into what happened.”
Officials from the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board were on their way to Ukraine to help determine what happened, Obama said. He warned that evidence must not be tampered with as a United Nations-backed investigation goes forward, and he said, “We will hold all its members, including Russia, to their word” in allowing access to the crash.
“This should snap everybody’s heads to attention,” Obama said.
U.S. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, in an extraordinary speech at the United Nations, said the U.S. could not rule out that Russian personnel had assisted separatists in firing a missile at the plane carrying 298 people.
“Russia can end this war,” Power said. “Russia must end this war.”
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a single investigator to Ukraine as part of a U.S. delegation to assist with the investigation. Other agencies, including the FBI and FAA, were also expected to send representatives.
The White House has taken the lead in forming the delegation, according to a U.S. official familiar with the effort. A command center has been set up at the State Department, where officials from agencies participating in the delegation gathered Friday morning for a briefing from the CIA on the political and military situation in Ukraine, the official said.
A second U.S. official said all available evidence, including satellite imagery, pointed to the plane being shot down by an SA-11 anti-aircraft missile fired from eastern Ukraine by Ukrainian separatist forces. The U.S. detected three discrete events associated with the shootdown, the official said: the launching of the missile from the Ukraine side of the border, the missile’s impact with the plane, and the plane slamming into the ground.
Both officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss U.S. intelligence matters publicly by name.
The attack Thursday afternoon killed people from nearly a dozen nations, including vacationers, students and a large contingent of scientists. At least 189 of the dead were from the Netherlands. Obama said one American was on board.
The plane was shot down in eastern, Ukraine, near the border with Russia, in an area where Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatists has alarmed the U.S. and its European allies. The incident occurred one day after Obama announced broader economic sanctions against Russia for its threatening moves in Ukraine.