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Obama: Missile Downed Malaysia Plane Over Ukraine; 'Outrage of Unspeakable Proportions'


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President Barack Obama says the United States is confident a surface-to-air missile shot down a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine and that it was fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Speaking at the White House Friday, Obama called the deaths of the 298 people aboard the plane an "outrage of unspeakable proportions." He noted that at least one American was among the dead.

"This was a global tragedy," he 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. The U.N. Security Council has endorsed this investigation, and we will hold all its members, including Russia, to their word."

​Obama added that in order to facilitate the probe, Russia, the separatists and Ukraine must adhere to an immediate cease-fire. He said the tragedy underscores "it is time for peace and security to be restored in Ukraine."

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur at the time of the apparent missile strike.

UN Security Council Meets

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (C) addresses the U.N. Security Council at the U.N. headquarters in New York, July 18, 2014.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (C) addresses the U.N. Security Council at the U.N. headquarters in New York, July 18, 2014.

Speaking during an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said the missile system was likely operated from a "separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine."

She noted that it is unlikely that the separatists could operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel. She said technical assistance from Russia cannot be ruled out.

Obama said Friday that Ukraine's separatists are known to have received what he described as "a steady flow of support from Russia." He said this includes arms and training, heavy weapons and anti-aircraft weapons.

A Pentagon spokesman echoed Obama's comments, saying there has been a "concerted campaign" by Russia's military to continue to support, resource and advise the separatists.

In the last few weeks, the U.S. has said Russian-backed separatists in the region have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane, a Ukrainian helicopter, and claimed to have shot down a Ukrainian fighter jet.

"What we do know is that the violence that's taking place there is facilitated in part -- in large part -- because of Russian support," Obama said. "And they have the ability to move those separatists in a different direction."

Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, had said Ukraine would present evidence to the Council showing Russia's military was involved in the crash.

Ukraine's government has previously accused the separatists of shooting the plane down, while the rebels blamed government forces. Russia has denied any involvement.

Most of the passengers on the Boeing 777 aircraft were Dutch, and many were scientists heading to an international AIDS conference in Australia.​

Obama said Friday the U.S. stands ready to provide any assistance necessary. He said members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board are already on their way to the wreckage site.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council it is unlikely the separatists could operate an advanced missile system without help from knowledgeable people.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also sent about 30 monitors, however officials say they have been denied access to the disaster area by gunmen.

Malaysia Airlines says the route where the strike occurred is commonly used for Europe to Asia flights. But the airline says it is now no longer flying planes over Ukrainian airspace, instead routing its aircraft further south over Turkey.

Recovering bodies

The incident sent debris and body parts over a wide area of eastern Ukraine. Bodies fell in fields and inside and outside of village homes.

Emergency workers say more than 180 bodies have been located, while there were conflicting reports about whether the plane's black boxes had been recovered. Some reports say pro-Russian separatists have already sent one of the boxes to Moscow. Other reports say the rebels and villagers have walked all over the crash site, stepping on evidence and possibly compromising the investigation.

Nationalities of passengers on MH17
Nationalities of passengers on MH17

Malaysia Airlines says people from at least 10 countries were on board the plane, including 189 from the Netherlands, 44 Malaysians and 27 Australians. The airline says another 12 passengers were Indonesian, nine were British and about a dozen others were from Belgium, Germany, the Philippines, Canada or New Zealand.

A top Malaysia Airlines official says the company will pay $5,000 per passenger to relatives to cover initial expenses.

U.S. intelligence officials say the plane likely was targeted deliberately by someone who may have mistaken it for a Ukrainian military transport plane.

Malaysia sends disaster team

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tion Lai told reporters Friday in Kuala Lumpur that the purposeful shooting down of a passenger jet is against international law and would be an "outrage against human decency."

He said Malaysia is sending a 62-person disaster team to Amsterdam to assist with support to the families of victims.

Eastern Ukraine has been the scene of fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatists who have declared independence in some regions with the aim of joining Russia.

Separatists say they have shot down Ukrainian military planes in recent weeks, and Kyiv accused Russia of shooting down a Ukrainian military aircraft Wednesday.

The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Russia Wednesday for failing to take steps to de-escalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine and for providing weapons and support to the rebels

This is the second major tragedy for Malaysia Airlines this year. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 when it disappeared with 239 people on board. It did not send out a distress call and is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. Searchers have found no trace of the plane.

VOA's Mary Alice Salinas contributed to this report. Some material from Reuters was used in this report.

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