WASHINGTON - The United States began building a case Friday that would pin the blame for the downing of the passenger jet over Ukraine on separatist forces supported by Russia, in a disaster that could dramatically escalate the crisis in Ukraine. President Barack Obama said one American was among the nearly 300 killed and called for an immediate cease-fire to allow for an unfettered investigation.
Evidence indicates that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Obama said at the White House. He warned that the incident showed the crisis in Ukraine won't be localized or contained to the region.
"This should snap everybody's heads to attention," Obama said.
He identified the U.S. citizen who was killed as Quinn Lucas Schansman. No other details were available on the passenger.
While cautioning that the exact circumstances of the crash were still being determined, Obama pointed his finger at Russia for providing support to separatists that he suggested enabled them to shoot down the plane. He said such an attack wouldn't be possible without sophisticated equipment and training - "and that is coming from Russia."
"Obviously, we're beginning to draw some conclusions given the nature of the shot that was fired," Obama said in a stern address at the White House. "There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet.
Officials from the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board were on their way to Ukraine to help determine what happened, Obama said. He warned that evidence must not be tampered with as a United Nations-backed investigation goes forward, and he said, "We will hold all its members, including Russia, to their word" in allowing access to the crash.
At the United Nations earlier Friday, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power delivered an extraordinary speech rebuking Russia and noting that the U.S. could not rule out that Russian personnel had assisted separatists in firing a missile at the plane.
"Russia can end this war," Power said. "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.
The White House has taken the lead in forming the U.S. delegation, according to an official familiar with the effort. A command center has been set up at the State Department, where officials from agencies participating in the delegation gathered Friday morning for a briefing from the CIA on the political and military situation in Ukraine, the official said.
A second U.S. official said all available evidence, including satellite imagery, pointed to the plane being shot down by an SA-11 anti-aircraft missile fired from eastern Ukraine by Ukrainian separatist forces. The U.S. detected three discrete events associated with the shootdown, the official said: the launching of the missile from the Ukraine side of the border, the missile's impact with the plane, and the plane slamming into the ground.
Both officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss U.S. intelligence matters publicly by name.
The attack Thursday afternoon killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations, including vacationers, students and a large contingent of scientists. At least 189 of the dead were from the Netherlands.
The plane was shot down in eastern, Ukraine, near the border with Russia, in an area where Moscow's support for pro-Russian separatists has alarmed the U.S. and its European allies. The incident occurred one day after Obama announced broader economic sanctions against Russia for its threatening moves in Ukraine.
What we know
One day after the crash of a Malaysian jetliner carrying 298 people in eastern Ukraine, here's what is known, and what has been claimed:
U.S. officials and an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister have said a surface-to-air missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew Thursday from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard died. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the U.N. Security Council in New York on Friday the missile was likely fired from a rebel-held area near the Russian border. Independent aviation experts have agreed a missile was the likely cause, but so far, there's been no proof. Ukraine's government, the pro-Russia rebels who oppose it and Russia have all denied shooting down the passenger plane. The official investigation into the crash and its cause has only begun.
THE "BLACK BOXES"
The whereabouts of the plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder remained unknown Friday. The rebels gave conflicting reports about whether they had found them. Russia's foreign minister said his country had no intention of acquiring them and that they should be given to international aviation organizations. Experts in air accident investigations said the boxes' contents could be key to establishing what happened to the Boeing 777 in the moments before it crashed. The thud of a missile hit or the acoustic shock wave emitted by an explosion could have been picked up by the cockpit recorder, they said.
According to international civil aviation regulations, Ukraine should take the lead in investigating an air crash on its territory. Ukraine has called for an international probe, and the United States has offered to assist. But access to the site in rebel-held lands 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border remained difficult and dangerous Friday. It was still uncertain whether the rebels would allow Ukrainian government officials to pass through their checkpoints. A spokeswoman for Ukraine's emergency services accused rebel militiamen of interfering with recovery operations.
By midday, 181 bodies had been recovered, according to emergency workers. A Ukraine Foreign Ministry official said remains of the dead would be taken to government-controlled Kharkiv for identification. Andrei Purgin, a leader of the pro-Russian separatists, said the bodies will be taken to the Black Sea city of Mariupol, also controlled by the government. Malaysia Airlines and relevant governments said the passengers included 192 Dutch, 29 Malaysians, 28 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Vietnamese, three Filipinos and one person each from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong. These likely include some with dual nationalities. Some passengers were researchers and activists heading to an AIDS conference in Australia, news that sparked an outpouring of grief across the scientific community. Among them were the well-known Dutch researcher and former president of the International AIDS Society, Joep Lange, and World Health Organization spokesman Glenn Thomas, based in Geneva. Malaysia Airlines regional vice president Huib Gorter told reporters at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport the carrier was making an initial payment of $5,000 to families of all victims to cover their immediate costs.