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)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/25/2014 11:29 PM EDT
Document: EU Extends Russia Sanctions
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.
07/25/2014 5:21 PM EDT
AP Journalists Saw Rebels With BUK Missiles Hours Before MH17 Crashed
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.
07/25/2014 2:59 PM EDT
White House: Russia 'Culpable' For Downed Jet
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.
07/25/2014 1:54 PM EDT
Ukrainian Security Release Tape Of Rebels Allegedly Discussing MH17
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.
07/25/2014 1:14 PM EDT
Russia Accuses U.S. Of 'Smear Campaign' Over Ukraine
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
07/25/2014 1:06 PM EDT
U.S. Ambassador: 15,000 Russian Troops At Border
#BREAKING: More than 15,000 Russian troops amassed along border with Ukraine: U.S. ambassador to NATO— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 25, 2014
07/25/2014 12:58 PM EDT
More On The Remarks Out Of The Pentagon
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.
07/25/2014 12:45 PM EDT
Pentagon Says Russia Is Readying Weapons For Transfer To Ukraine Rebels
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
07/25/2014 11:34 AM EDT
Australia To Send 100 Additional Police and Personnel To Secure Crash Site
(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.
07/25/2014 11:03 AM EDT
Russian Newspaper Runs Front Page Apology For MH17
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.