By Anton Zverev
HRABOVE, Ukraine, July 18 (Reuters) - World leaders demanded an international investigation into the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with 298 people on board over eastern Ukraine in a tragedy that could mark a pivotal moment in the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Two U.S. officials said Washington strongly suspected the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow.
There were no survivors from Thursday's crash, which left wreckage and bodies scattered across miles of rebel-held territory near the border with Russia.
Makeshift white flags marked where bodies lay in corn fields and among the debris. Others, stripped bare by the force of the crash, had been covered by polythene sheeting weighed down by stones, one marked with a flower in remembrance.
The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula a month later.
While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the United States has been more aggressive than the European Union. Analysts say the response of Germany and other EU powers to the incident - possibly imposing more sanctions - could be crucial in deciding the next phase of the standoff with Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an initial response, said it was too early to decide on further sanctions before it was known exactly what had happened to the plane.
Kiev and Moscow immediately blamed each other for the disaster, triggering a new phase in their propaganda war.
The plane crashed about 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Russia near the regional capital of Donetsk, an area that is a stronghold of rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian government forces and have brought down military aircraft.
Leaders of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic denied any involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the intercontinental flight.
Russia's Defense Ministry later pointed the finger at Ukrainian ground forces, saying said it had picked up radar activity from a Ukrainian missile system south of Donetsk when the airliner was brought down, Russian media reported.
The Ukrainian security council said no missiles had been fired from the armories of its armed forces.
The Ukrainian government released recordings it said were of Russian intelligence officers discussing the shooting down of a civilian airliner by rebels who may have mistaken it for a Ukrainian military plane.
The United States called for a ceasefire to allow access to the crash site, as did Merkel.
"There are many indications that the plane was shot down, so we have to take things very seriously," the German leader said.
Separatists told the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a security and rights agency, they would ensure safe access to the scene for international experts.
An OSCE spokesman said the organization, which has monitors in the region, expected to reach the site later on Friday.
The plane's two black boxes - voice and data recorders - were quickly recovered, but since the crash site was in rebel hands it was unclear who would analyze them and whether they could in any case determine who fired the missile.
Further complicating any investigation, local people were seen removing pieces of wreckage as souvenirs. The condition of the metal can indicate if it has been struck by a missile.
Reuters journalists saw burning and charred wreckage bearing the red and blue Malaysia Airlines insignia and dozens of bodies in fields near the village of Hrabove.
Ukraine said on Friday that up to 181 bodies had been found. The airline said it was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew.
"I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang," one local man told Reuters at Hrabove, known in Russian as Grabovo. "Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke."
Ukraine has closed air space over the east of the country.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said it appeared the downing of the jetliner was not an accident and that it apparently was "blown out of the sky".
"While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fueled by Russian support for the separatists, including through arms, materiel, and training," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement.
More than half of the dead, 173 people, were Dutch. Forty-four were Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, nine British, four German, four Belgian, three Filipino and one each from Canada, New Zealand and Romania. All 15 crew were Malaysian.
Nationalities of the others aboard were unclear.
A number of those on board were traveling to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, including Joep Lange, an influential Dutch expert.
"TRAGIC DAY, TRAGIC YEAR"
The loss of MH17 is the second devastating blow for Malaysia Airlines this year, following the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370 in March, which vanished with 239 passengers and crew on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
In Malaysia, there was a sense of disbelief that another airline disaster could strike so soon.
"If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a pre-dawn news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
"This is a tragic day, in what has already been a tragic year, for Malaysia."
The transport minister said the plane's route was approved by international aviation officials.
Relatives gathered at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Akma Mohammad Noor said her sister Rahimah was coming home to mark the Muslim festival of the end of Ramadan. "We were supposed to celebrate," Noor said, weeping.
The Netherlands declared a day of national mourning.
Ukraine accused pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian military intelligence officers, of firing a long-range, Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile.
Russian President Vladimir Putin - accused by the West of backing the rebels in Ukraine - blamed Kiev for renewing its offensive against rebels two weeks ago after a ceasefire failed to hold. The Kremlin leader called it a "tragedy" but did not say who brought the Boeing 777 down.
He later called for a "thorough and unbiased" investigation.
U.S. President Barack Obama said evidence from the crash must remain in Ukraine so international investigators have a chance to look at all of it, officials said.
The OSCE said a "contact group" of senior representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE had held a video conference with the separatists, who pledged to cooperate with Ukrainian authorities in the investigation.
Kiev complained that separatists prevented Ukrainian officials from reaching the site, where pro-Russian separatists said they had found one of the "black box" recorders. Rescue workers recovered a second recorder on Friday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called for a transparent international investigation. The U.N. Security Council will discuss the issue on Friday.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who had stepped up an offensive in the east this month, spoke to Obama and sought to rally world opinion behind his cause.
"The external aggression against Ukraine is not just our problem but a threat to European and global security," he said.
Russia, which Western powers accuse of trying to destabilize Ukraine to maintain influence over its old Soviet empire, has accused Kiev's leaders of mounting a fascist coup. It says it is holding troops in readiness to protect Russian-speakers in the east - the same rationale it used for taking over Crimea.
News of the disaster came as Obama was on the phone with Putin, discussing a new round of economic sanctions that Washington and its allies have imposed to try to force Putin to do more to curb the revolt against the new government in Kiev.
Obama warned of further sanctions if Moscow did not change course in Ukraine, the White House said.
After the downing of several Ukrainian military aircraft in the area in recent months, including two this week, Kiev had accused Russian forces of playing a direct role.
Separatists were quoted in Russian media last month saying they had acquired a long-range SA-11 anti-aircraft system.
International air lanes had been open in the area, though only above 32,000 feet. The Malaysia plane was flying 1,000 feet higher, officials said. (Additional reporting by Natalya Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Peter Graff and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev, Tim Heritage, Vladimir Soldatkin, Polina Devitt, Thomas Grove and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam, Anuradha Raghu, Siva Govindasamy and Trinna Leong in Kuala Lumpur, Jane Wardell and Matt Siegel in Sydney and Phil Stewart, Warren Strobel, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Will Waterman and Alastair Macdonald)
A document shows that EU sanctions ar targeting Russian businesses, the AP reports:
A European Union document shows that among those targeted by the EU-wide asset freeze and travel ban are Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian Federal Security.
Also targeted is Sergei Beseda, head of the FSB service that oversees international operations and intelligence activity.
Associated Press journalists in Ukraine saw a BUK missile system -- the type that the US says downed Flight MH17 -- in rebel hands just hours before the plane was shot down, the news agency says in detailed account of the day's events. AP says that while the rebels officially deny responsibility, "the denials are increasingly challenged by accounts of residents, the observations of journalists on the ground, and the statements of one rebel official." Further, one rebel official told AP that they were behind the plane tragedy.
More from the AP story:
A highly placed rebel, speaking to the AP this week, admitted that rebels were responsible. He said a unit based in the hometown of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, made up of both Russians and Ukrainians, was involved in the firing of an SA-11 from near Snizhne. The rebel, who has direct access to the inner circle of the insurgent leadership in Donetsk, said that he could not be named because he was contradicting the rebels' official line.
The rebels believed they were targeting a Ukrainian military plane, this person said. Instead, they hit the passenger jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard were killed.
Read the full account here.
In a briefing on Friday, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there has been a "steady flow" of weapons from Russia into Ukraine, and emphasized the position that Russia played a role in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch reports.
Russia 'culpable' for Malaysia Air jet downed in Ukraine: White House http://t.co/bJR9bYh7js
— MarketWatch (@MarketWatch) July 25, 2014
The Pentagon said on Friday that the transfer of missile systems from Russia to separatists in Ukraine appeared to be imminent. On Thursday, the U.S. claimed that Russia had fired on Ukrainian military positions.
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) July 25, 2014
Ukraine's security service, SBU, on Friday released a recording it said was of a phone call between pro-Russian separatists discussing a plane overhead, minutes before the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over east Ukraine. “I see… Roger... Report it upstairs,” the rebel commander says, according to a translation.
Writing for Mashable, Christopher Miller notes that the recording has not been authenticated and the commander "stops short of giving the order to shoot down Flight 17," however the implication is clearly to build a case that the rebels shot down the plane.
Responding to U.S. officials assertion that Russia was firing artillery on Ukrainian military positions across the border, Russia on Friday countered by calling the claim a baseless "smear campaign,"AFP reports.
A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said, "Due to the smear campaign against us that the US Administration has begun... we reject the unfounded public insinuations that US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf is spreading on a daily basis," adding that Harf has used "a basketful of these anti-Russian cliches," to influence perceptions of Russia. The statement refuted the U.S. State Departments claim on Russia targeting Ukraine military, saying "There are no facts or specifics about these falsehoods."
More from AFP.
-- Andrew Hart
#BREAKING: More than 15,000 Russian troops amassed along border with Ukraine: U.S. ambassador to NATO
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 25, 2014
The Pentagon said on Friday the transfer of heavy caliber multiple launch rocket systems from
Russia to Ukrainian separatists appeared to be imminent, with the arms close enough to the border they could be handed over "potentially today."
"We have indications that the Russians intend to supply heavier and more sophisticated multiple launch rocket systems in the very near future," said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, adding that the weapons were in the over-200mm range.
Warren indicated the weapons had been seen getting closer to the border and the Pentagon believed a transfer was imminent and "potentially today."
"We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time, at any moment," he said.
Pentagon: Russia readying powerful weapons for rebels in Ukraine, transfer could happen any time. http://t.co/xZnfkBUWSV
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) July 25, 2014
(Reuters) - Australia will send 100 additional police and some defense force personnel to Europe to join a planned Dutch-led international security force to secure the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, some of whom will be armed, will join a contingent of 90 AFP officers already in London waiting for a deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be approved by Ukraine's parliament.
"This is a humanitarian mission, with a clear and simple objective," Abbott told reporters. "I expect the operation on the ground in Ukraine, should the deployment go ahead, to last no longer than a few weeks."
Read the full story here.
A leading Russian newspaper has issued an apology on its front page, asking for forgiveness from the people of the Netherlands who lost their loved ones in the Malaysian Airlines plane crash. The front page of Novaya Gazeta on Friday featured the words "Vergeef ons, Nederlands" (Forgive Us, Netherlands) in bold above a heartbreaking image of the line of hearses carrying MH17 victim's bodies.
Read the full story on the Huffington Post here.
CNN reports that the European Union slapped sanctions on 15 more people and 18 entities due to the Ukraine crisis, according to an announcement Friday. Already 87 people have been subject to EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans, as well as 20 entities, CNN said.
FIFA rejected calls to move the 2018 World Cup from Russia, saying the tournament "can achieve positive change."
Russia's alleged involvement in shooting down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine last week prompted calls from some lawmakers in Germany to review the country's hosting rights.
On Friday, FIFA issued a statement saying it "deplores any form of violence" and questioning the purpose of relocating the sport's showcase tournament.
"History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems," FIFA said, adding that global attention on the World Cup "can be a powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments."
New York-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch has accused both Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels of using unguided Grad rockets, which they said had killed 16 civilians and wounded many more. “Grad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn’t be used in populated areas,” HRW researcher Ole Solvang said in a statement. "Ukrainian authorities should order all their forces, including volunteer forces, to immediately stop using Grads in or near populated areas, and insurgent forces should avoid deploying in densely populated areas," he added.
A view of proceedings during a memorial service held for victims of the MH17 disaster at St Mary's Cathedral on July 25, 2014 in Perth, Australia. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Russia said around 40 mortar shells fired by Ukrainian forces fell on Friday in its Rostov province near the border with eastern Ukraine where Kiev is fighting pro-Russian separatists.
"Around 40 mortar shells have fallen from Ukraine ... in Rostov province," Vasily Malayev, a representative of the region's Federal Security Service devoted to border security, was cited by the state Ria Novosti news agency as saying.
In a statement on Friday, the headquarters of the government's military operation in the east listed at least seven locations where rebels attacked Ukrainian troops. They also claimed that attacks on two locations including a border crossing were supported by artillery fire from Russia.
Late on Thursday, Ukrainian troops entered the town of Lysychansk, which has been in rebel hands for several months, the military press office said. Rebels on Friday morning admitted in comments carried by Interfax that they had to flee the town which is 70 kilometers (45 miles) north-west of the regional capital Luhansk.
The Associated Press reports the countries of the European Union have reached a preliminary deal to impose more sanctions on Russia.
BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union ambassadors have reached a preliminary deal on stepped-up sanctions against Russia, targeting its access to European capital markets and trade in the defense sector, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies.
EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic says the proposals were transmitted Friday to EU officials to codify into regulations, with the ambassadors scheduled to meet again Tuesday to review the results. She said EU member states must decide whether the measures need to be approved by a summit meeting of the trade bloc's 28 member countries to go into effect.
The ambassadors also ordered EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans for an undisclosed number of Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians who are accused of undermining Ukraine's sovereignty. The names of those affected should be made public later Friday.
The black box flight recorders from the doomed Malaysia Airlines jet suffered slight damage in the attack and crash, Reuters reported.
"During the inspection it was established that the recorders have slight mechanical damage which did not affect the intactness of the recorders," Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee, a supervisory body that oversees the use and management of civil aviation, stated.
FMI: Click here.
Two more planes arrived in the Netherlands carrying the remains of victims on Thursday, AP reports:
Human remains continue to be found a full week after the plane went down, underlining concerns about the halting and chaotic recovery effort at the sprawling site spread across farmland in eastern Ukraine. Armed separatists control the area and have hindered access by investigators.
President Barack Obama spoke with Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte on the phone and they agreed that more sanctions need to be imposed on Russia, Reuters reports:
"Instead of de-escalating the situation, they agreed that all evidence indicates Russia is still arming and supplying separatists who continue to engage in deadly acts of aggression against Ukrainian armed forces," the White House said.
Foreign correspondents report shelling in the city of Donetsk on Thursday night.
The soothing lullaby of shelling. The war creeps close and closer to Donetsk city centre.
— Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant) July 24, 2014
Midnight in Donetsk. Sustained, low rumble of shelling in the distance. Going to be a long summer.
— max seddon (@maxseddon) July 24, 2014
This is easily the loudest and longest fire I've heard in Donetsk.
— max seddon (@maxseddon) July 24, 2014
Dutch sending 40 unarmed military police to #MH17 crash site, want to "stabilise area": PM Rutte
— Charles Onians (@charlesonians) July 24, 2014
Gunmen chased investigators from the site where the Malaysian airliner crashed and "lunatics" were still making life difficult for those who wanted to find out what downed flight MH17, officials said on Thursday.
As foreign ministers from Australia and the Netherlands met Ukrainian officials to coordinate the investigation, the head of Ukraine's Emergency Situations Service and the chief of a Dutch police mission said their work at the site was being hampered.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, however, said there had been no incidents, and that they had been joined by experts from Malaysia and Australia, which lost 28 citizens in the crash.
The West has called for a thorough investigation into the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine to get justice for the 298 people who were killed, but have voiced concern that the rebels were preventing investigators from doing their job.
"They took away our tents, the ones which were at our base camp," Serhiy Bochkovsky, the head of the emergencies service, told a news conference in the eastern city of Kharkiv from where the remains of the victims are starting their journey home.
"We were allowed only our equipment and machinery and we were chased away at gunpoint."
He did not say when this happened.
Read the full story here.
U.S. says it has evidence Russian artillery is firing across border to attack Ukrainian military: State Dept.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 24, 2014
A convoy of hearses carry bodies and remains from those killed on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 24, 2014 in Boxtel, Netherlands. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Dutch military personnel carry coffins containing the remains of the victims of the MH17 plane crash to a waiting hearse at the airbase in Eindhoven on July 24, 2014. (MARCEL VAN HOORN/AFP/Getty Images)
The Washington Post has an infographic showing information surrounding each of the aircraft that have been shot in Ukraine since May 2.
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) July 24, 2014
Investigators looking into the downing of MalaysiaAirlines flight MH17 have found no evidence that either of the aircraft's two black boxes were tampered with, the Dutch Safety Board, which is coordinating the investigation, said.
In a statement on Thursday, the Board said the data from theBoeing 777's flight data recorder had been successfully downloaded by investigators at Britain's Air Accident Investigation Branch. The other voice recorder was successfully read the day before.
World leaders had expressed concern that the black boxes, which could contain data vital to ascertaining the cause of the crash, may have been manipulated by Moscow-backed rebels who control the territory in which the aircraft crashed last week.
BREAKING: Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says he is resigning.
— The Associated Press (@AP) July 24, 2014
(Reuters) - Russia will cooperate with the investigation into the downing of a Malaysian airliner a week ago and is satisfied that the Netherlands, rather than Ukraine, is leading the effort, the country's ambassador to Malaysia said on Thursday.
The norm under rules set down by the United Nation's civil aviation body (ICAO) is that an air investigation is led by the state in whose territory the plane crash, but Russia had said that Ukraine should not take charge because the rebels who control the crash site did not trust the authorities in Kiev.
Read the full story here.