Official: 181 bodies found at Malaysian plane site

Update: Friday, 5:45 a.m.

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – Emergency workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners – dressed in overalls and covered in soot – spread out across sunflower fields and tiny Ukrainian villages Friday, searching through the wreckage of the Malaysian plane shot down as it flew miles above the country’s battlefield.

The downing killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations. By midday, 181 bodies had been located, according to emergency workers at the sprawling crash site.

Separatist rebels who control the eastern area where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was brought down Thursday said they had recovered most of its black boxes and were considering what to do with them.  Their statement had profound implications for the integrity of the plane crash investigation.

U.S. intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile downed the plane, but could not say who fired it.

Ukraine has called for an international probe to determine who attacked the plane and insisted it was not its military.

An angry Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Friday demanded an independent inquiry into the downing and called Russia’s response to it “deeply, deeply unsatisfactory.”

“The initial response of the Russian ambassador was to blame Ukraine for this and I have to say that is deeply, deeply unsatisfactory,” he said. “It’s very important that we don’t allow Russia to prevent an absolutely comprehensive investigation so that we can find out exactly what happened here.”

“This is not an accident, it’s a crime,” he added.

The crash site was spread out over fields between two villages in eastern Ukraine – Rozsypne and Hrabove – and access to it remained difficult and dangerous. The road from Donetsk, the largest city in the region, to the crash site was marked by five rebel checkpoints Friday, with document checks at each.

Fighting apparently still continued nearby. In the distance, the thud of Grad missile launchers being fired could be heard Friday morning.

In the sunflower fields around Rozsypne, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border, lines of men disappeared into the thick and tall growth Friday. One fainted after finding a body. Another body was covered in a coat.

In Hrabove, several miles away, huge numbers of simple sticks, some made from tree branches, were affixed with red or white rags to mark spots where body parts were found.

Ukraine Foreign Ministry representative Andriy Sybiga said 181 bodies had been found, citing local emergency workers at the site. He said the bodies will be taken to Kharkiv, a government-controlled city 270 kilometers  (170 miles) to the north, for identification.

Among the debris were watches and smashed mobile phones, charred boarding passes and passports.  An “I Love Amsterdam” T-shirt and a guidebook to Bali hinted at holiday plans.

Large chunks of the Boeing 777 that bore the airline’s red, white and blue markings lay strewn over one field.  The cockpit and one turbine lay a kilometer (a half-mile) apart, and residents said the tail landed another 10 kilometers (six miles) away.

One rebel militiaman in Rozsypne told The Associated Press that the plane’s fuselage showed signs of being struck by a projectile.

The area has seen heavy fighting between government troops and pro-Russia separatists, and rebels had bragged about shooting down two Ukrainian military jets in the region just a day earlier.

Ukraine accused the rebels of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines plane. The rebels denied it and accused government forces of the same; President Petro Poroshenko denied it as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the downing, saying it was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions – but did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the rebels, a charge that Moscow denies.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk described the downing Friday as an “international crime” whose perpetrators would have to be punished in an international tribunal.

“Yesterday’s terrible tragedy will change our lives. The Russians have done it now,” he was cited as saying by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

An assistant to the insurgency’s military commander, Igor Girkin, said Friday on condition of anonymity that eight out of the plane’s 12 recording devices had been located at the crash site. He did not elaborate. Since airplanes normally have both a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, it was not exactly clear what devices he was referring to.

He said Girkin was still considering whether to give international crash investigators access to the sprawling crash site. Any investigators would need specific permission from the rebel leadership before they could safely film or take photos at the crash site, he said.

Kenneth Quinn of the Flight Safety Foundation said an international coalition of countries should lead the investigation. The Unites States has offered to help.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lay repeatedly insisted Friday that the airline’s path was an internationally approved route and denied accusations that Malaysia Airlines was trying to save fuel and money by taking a more direct flight path across Ukraine.

“I want to stress that this route is an approved path that is used by many airlines including 15 Asia-Pacific airlines. We have not been informed that the path cannot be used,” he said

Malaysia’s prime minister said there was no distress call before the plane went down.

Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued previous warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March. Within hours of the crash Thursday, several airlines announced they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.

On Friday, Ukraine’s state aviation service closed the airspace over two regions currently gripped by fighting – Donetsk and Luhansk – and Russian aviation regulators said Russian airlines have suspended all transit flights over Ukraine.

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines updated its nationality count of passengers, saying the plane carried 173 Dutch, 24 Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, 9 British, 4 German, 4 Belgian, 3 Filipino and one person each from Canada and New Zealand.

Passengers on the plane included a large contingent of world-renowned AIDS researchers and activists headed to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. News of their deaths sparked an outpouring of grief across the global scientific community.

In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of victims were meeting with counselors at the international airport. A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming to visit the family for the first time in five years.

“She called me just before she boarded the plane and said, ‘See you soon,’” Akmar said.

In the Netherlands, flags were flying at half-staff across the country as residents mourned the victims.

Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet). He said only that his information was based on “intelligence.”

 

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HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) – Ukraine accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down a Malaysian jetliner with 298 people aboard Thursday, sharply escalating the crisis and threatening to draw both East and West deeper into the conflict. The rebels denied downing the aircraft.

American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought the plane down but were still working on who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border, a U.S. official said.

Bodies, debris and burning wreckage of the Boeing 777 were strewn over a field near the rebel-held village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border, where fighting has raged for months.

The aircraft appeared to have broken up before impact, and there were large pieces of the plane that bore the red, white and blue markings of Malaysia Airlines – now familiar worldwide because of the still-missing jetliner from earlier this year.

The cockpit and one of the turbines lay at a distance of one 1 kilometer (more than a half-mile) from one another. Residents said the tail had landed around 10 kilometers (six miles) farther away. Rescue workers planted sticks with white flags in spots where they found human remains.

There was no indication there were any survivors from Flight 17, which took off shortly after noon Thursday from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 280 passengers and a crew of 15. Malaysia’s prime minister said there was no distress call before the plane went down and that the flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

President Petro Poroshenko called it an “act of terrorism” and demanded an international investigation. He insisted that his forces did not shoot down the plane.

Ukraine’s security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that showed 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, two rebel fighters – one of them at the crash scene – say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the site.

Neither recording could be independently verified.

Flight path of Malaysia Airlines MH17 from Amsterdam.
Flight path of Malaysia Airlines MH17 from Amsterdam.
Location of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash in Ukraine.
Location of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash in Ukraine.

Earlier in the week, the rebels had claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military planes.

President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Britain asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine.

Later, Putin said Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash, but he didn’t address the question of who might have shot it down and didn’t accuse Ukraine of doing so.
“This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin statement issued early Friday. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”

Officials said more than half of those aboard the plane were Dutch citizens, along with passengers from Australia, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, the Philippines and Canada. The home countries of nearly 50 were not confirmed.

The different nationalities of the dead would bring Ukraine’s conflict to parts of the globe that were never touched by it before.

Ukraine’s crisis began after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office in February by a protest movement among citizens wanting closer ties with the European Union. Russia later annexed the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine, and pro-Russians in the country’s eastern regions began occupying government buildings and pressing for independence. Moscow denies Western charges it is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest.

The RIA-Novosti agency on Thursday quoted rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying discussions were underway with Ukrainian authorities on calling a short truce for humanitarian reasons. He said international organizations would be allowed into the conflict-plagued region.

Some journalists trying to reach the crash site were detained briefly by rebel militiamen, who were nervous and aggressive.

Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine prior to Thursday’s crash, but many airliners had continued to use the route because “it is a shorter route, which means less fuel and therefore less money,” said aviation expert Norman Shanks.

Within hours of Thursday’s crash, several airlines said they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.

Malaysia Airlines said Ukrainian aviation authorities told the company they had lost contact with Flight 17 at 1415 GMT (10 a.m. EDT) about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Tamak waypoint, which is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russia-Ukraine border.

A U.S. official said American intelligence authorities believe the plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile but were still working to determine additional details about the crash, including who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukraine side of the border.

But U.S. intelligence assessments suggest it is more likely pro-Russian separatists or the Russians rather than Ukrainian government forces shot down the plane, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The U.S. has sophisticated technologies that can detect missile launches, including the identification of heat from the rocket engine.

Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet). He said only that his information was based on “intelligence.”

Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have SA-17 missile systems – also known as Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.

Rebels had bragged recently about having acquired Buk systems.

Sutyagin said Russia had supplied separatists with military hardware but 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 4,500 meters. (14,750 feet)

A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by AP journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.

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

“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.

The Kremlin said Putin “informed the U.S. president of the report from air traffic controllers that the Malaysian plane had crashed on Ukrainian territory” without giving further details about their call. The White House confirmed the call.

Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told the AP he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down, but gave no explanation or proof.

Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, they had no fighters capable of operating them.

In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of those aboard the jet came to the international airport.

A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming to visit the family for the first time in five years. “She called me just before she boarded the plane and said ‘see you soon,’” Akmar said.

It was the second time a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Flight 370 disappeared in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.

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

A Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down Wednesday by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said, adding to what Kiev says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the insurgents. Ukraine Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said the pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet hit by the missile bailed out after his jet was hit.

Moscow’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin denied Russia shot down the Ukrainian fighter jet.

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

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile but the pilot landed safely.

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

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Peter Leonard reported from Kiev with contributions from an Associated Press reporter in Hrabove, Ukraine. Also contributing were AP Airlines Writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York; Jill Lawless and Matthew Knight in London; Laura Mills and Jim Heintz in Moscow; Lolita C. Baldor and Darlene Superville in Washington; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Eileen Ng and Satish Cheney in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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