- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2014

A surface-to-air missile blew a Malaysian jetliner out of the sky over war-torn southeastern Ukraine on Thursday, U.S. and Ukrainian officials said. Kiev and Moscow blamed each other for the deaths of the 298 passengers and crew.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in a region engulfed in civil war where pro-Russia separatists are battling for control of eastern Ukraine. President Obama has tried to lead the West in economic sanctions against Russia to de-escalate tensions.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing of the jetliner an “act of terrorism.”

An adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry said the plane was brought down by a Buk surface-to-air missile. The Ukrainian military said it had intercepted communications proving that the rebels were responsible.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations pointed the finger of blame directly at Moscow and its support of the Russian-speaking rebels. “It could not have happened if Russia has not supplied the terrorists with sophisticated weaponry, with tanks, with artillery and with this missile system,” Yuriy Sergeyev told The Associated Press.

But Alexander Borodai, the separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, said the aircraft was shot down by government forces. Another rebel leader said separatists don’t have weapons capable of shooting down a plane at such a high altitude.

The Obama administration scrambled to determine who was responsible for shooting down the jet and whether Americans were killed.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama imposed more sanctions on Russia as punishment for the rebellion in Ukraine.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden said the downing was “not an accident” and that the plane was “blown out of the sky,” but he cautioned that the U.S. was still seeking details and investigating reports that American citizens were aboard.

Mr. Obama said the crash “may be a terrible tragedy” and directed his national security team to seek answers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin informed Mr. Obama of the crash during a phone call about the U.S. sanctions. Mr. Putin later said Ukraine bears responsibility.

“This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine,” Mr. Putin said in a statement released by the Kremlin. “And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”

Some U.S. lawmakers expressed concern that the incident would propel the simmering Ukrainian conflict into a new dimension. Others viewed it as a reason for the Obama administration to take stronger action against Russia.

“It will have huge effect, including maybe finally we will start giving arms to the Ukrainians,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

The Boeing 777 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet, near airspace deemed dangerous, when contact was lost. The plane reportedly was off course because of weather.

Russian media quoted witnesses as saying that they saw a plane being hit by what they thought was a rocket.

A U.S. intelligence official said analysis showed the aircraft was struck by a single missile while at cruising altitude.

The remains of the 283 passengers and 15 crew members were scattered amid burning wreckage across a wide area near the village of Hrabove, about 35 miles from the Russian border.

A spokesman for Malaysia Airlines, still reeling from the unexplained loss of flight MH370 somewhere in the Indian Ocean in March, said the plane disappeared from radar as it flew over Ukrainian airspace in the Donetsk district, the scene of recent heavy fighting.

The crash site is under the control of pro-Russia separatists, and fighting has been severe in recent days. A Russian news report said rebels intend to call a three-day cease-fire to allow for recovery efforts and an investigation. Separatists said they found the plane’s black boxes and would turn them over to Russian authorities.

Ukraine’s security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that indicated rebels were responsible. In the first call, the security services said, rebel commander Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence officer that rebel forces shot down a plane.

In the second call, two rebel fighters — one of them at the scene of the crash — say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 15 miles north of the site.

Neither recording could be verified independently.

On a fundraising trip to New York City on Thursday, Mr. Obama placed calls to Mr. Poroshenko and to the prime minister of Malaysia with offers of U.S. assistance. Britain asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine.

Aviation authorities in several countries, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, had issued warnings before the crash not to fly over parts of Ukraine. Within hours, several airlines, including Lufthansa, Delta and KLM, released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.

Anton Geraschenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page that the plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet when it was hit by an SA-17 Buk missile, which can reach altitudes of up to 72,000 feet. The Ukrainian government didn’t say how it knew those details.

Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries have SA-17 missile systems. He said Russia, which designs and manufactures the weapon, supplied separatists with military hardware, but he had seen no evidence “of the transfer of that type of system from Russia.”

The weapons that the rebels are known to have do not have the capacity to reach beyond 14,750 feet. Associated Press journalists saw a launcher similar to the Buk missile system earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which the rebels hold.

The rebels have bragged about capturing advanced weapons from the Ukrainian military.

Mr. Poroshenko said his country’s armed forces didn’t shoot at any airborne targets Thursday.

“We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the armed forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” he said. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.”

The Kremlin said Mr. Putin “informed the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory” but did not give further details about their call. The White House confirmed the call.

Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told AP he was certain that Ukrainian troops shot down the plane, but he gave no explanation or proof. Mr. Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers. Even if they did, he said, no fighters were capable of operating it.

The pro-Russia rebels are not known to operate any aircraft, much less planes that could be mistaken for jumbo jets.

The Ukrainian military does operate large cargo planes that have been targeted by rebel fire and that resemble jumbo jets to the untrained eye.

There have been several disputes over planes being shot down over eastern Ukraine in recent days.

On Wednesday, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said.

Kiev said the incident added to mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatist insurgents.

Ukrainian Security and Defense Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said the pilot of the Sukhoi Su-25 hit by the missile was forced to bail as his jet was shot down.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday that Russia did not shoot down the Ukrainian fighter jet Wednesday.

Pro-Russia rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 jets.

The Ukrainian Security and Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, but added that the pilot was unscathed and managed to land safely.

Moscow denies Western charges that it is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest in its neighboring country.

Ukraine said this week that a military transport plane was shot down Monday over eastern Ukraine by a missile fired from Russian territory.

Many airlines continued to use the route after warnings were issued, said Norman Shanks, a former head of group security at BAA Plc and professor of aviation security at Coventry University in Britain.

“It is a busy aviation route, and there have been suggestions that a notice was given to aviators telling airlines to avoid that particular area,” Mr. Shanks said. “But Malaysia Airlines, like a number of other carriers, have been continuing to use it because it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money.”

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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