- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2014

President Obama on Friday called for all sides to “adhere to an immediate cease-fire” in eastern Ukraine and for international investigators to receive unfettered access to the crash site of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet that was shot down in territory held by Russian-backed separatist rebels.

Mr. Obama said that the evidence points to the separatists, who are armed and trained by Russia, firing the missile that brought down the Boeing 777 and killed all 298 passengers and crew aboard. But he said the final verdict of who was responsible would have to wait the outcome of a “credible international investigation.”

“Evidence must not be tampered with,” he demanded. “Investigators need to access the crash site and the solemn task of returning those who were lost on board the plane to their loved ones needs to go forward immediately.”

Speaking at the White House, Mr. Obama said, “The eyes of the world are on eastern Ukraine, and we are going to make sure that the truth is out.”

The president also announced that one American citizen, Quinn Lucas Schansman, was among those killed on the plane. No other details about Mr. Schansman were provided.

The shot-down passenger jet inflamed already-tense relations between the Washington and Moscow following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, formerly a part of Ukraine, and continued Russian support for rebel fighters along Ukraine’s border with Russia.

Mr. Obama said the horrific incident in the sky over Ukraine should galvanize international efforts to end the conflict between the government in Kiev, which has forged allegiances with the European Union, and the rebels who want to restore strong ties with Russia.

“This should snap everybody’s heads to attention,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s demands echoed the United Nations Security Council, which held an emergency session Friday and called for a “a full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the downing of the plane.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also said both sides in the Ukrainian conflict should put down their weapons and hold peace talks.

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was heading from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it went down Thursday near the city of Donetsk, a pro-Russia stronghold in eastern Ukraine that has been the scene of pitched battles in recent days between separatists and the Ukrainian military.

“Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken — men, women, children, infants, who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the White House. “Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”

Most of the victims were from the Netherlands. About 100 of the passengers were AIDS researchers and activists headed to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Each side in the Ukraine conflict has accused the other of shooting down the plane with a surface-to-air missile.

The separatists have been slow to grant access to the crash site, as questions surface about what had happened to the plane’s “black box” data recorder. In Donetsk, regional officials and rebels offered differing accounts of who has the black box.

Mr. Obama stopped just short of assigning culpability for the tragedy to Mr. Putin, though he blamed the former KGB spy for fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“The violence that is taking place there is facilitated in a large part by Russia,” Mr. Obama said.

U.S. officials began building a strong case against the separatists and Russia.

Mr. Obama said the evidence so far indicates that the airliner was downed by a surface-to-air missile shot from rebel territory in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border.

He noted that the Russian-backed separatists had shot down several Ukraine military aircraft in recent weeks, including a transport plane and a helicopter. The rebels also clammed to have shot down a Ukraine fighter jet.

“Moreover, we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons and it includes anti-aircraft weapons,” Mr. Obama said.

Initial U.S. intelligence assessments indicate that pro-Russian separatists are responsible for shooting a commercial airliner out of the sky with a Soviet Union era surface-to-air missile, said a senior Pentagon official.

Pentagon officials increasingly believe that whoever brought down the plane used a Russian missile system to do it. But, like Mr. Obama, they said it was too early to say for sure who was responsible, though pro-Russian separatist fighters were most likely suspects.

Earlier at the U.N. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power delivered a more forceful speech rebuking Russia and raising the possibility that Russian personnel could have assisted separatists in firing a missile at the plane.

“Russia can end this war,” declared Ms. Power. “Russia must end this war.”

The 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.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, said that she was convinced Russia was behind the air attack, as she renewed her call for U.S. to provide military support and armaments to Ukraine.

“Essentially this investigation at the end of the day, I think the fingerprints are really on Moscow,” she said on MSNBC. “I never cease to be amazed by the nerve of Vladimir Putin to accuse the Ukrainians.”

As the plane fell in pieces from the sky, wreckage and bodies scattered across miles of rebel-held territory near the border with Russia.

Makeshift white flags marked where bodies lay in cornfields 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.

A woman said a corpse smashed though the roof of her house.

“There was a howling noise and everything started to rattle. Then objects started falling out of the sky,” said Irina Tipunova, 65. “And then I heard a roar and she landed in the kitchen.”

In addition to the American citizen, those killed on the plane included 189 Dutch passengers, 44 Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, nine British, four German, four Belgian, three Filipino, one Canadian and one New Zealander, as well as three of as yet unidentified nationalities, according to Malaysian Airlines.

Maggie Ybarra and Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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