ROZSYPNE, Ukraine (AP) — A Malaysian jetliner shot from the sky by what U.S. intelligence officials believe was a surface-to-air missile scattered wreckage and bodies across the Ukrainian countryside, leaving investigators scrambling Friday to figure out what happened as rescue workers, policemen and even coal miners combed the crash site.
For the second time in five months, a Malaysia Airlines plane filled with international passengers and crew was lost – an unthinkable coincidence.
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear. Ukraine accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down the plane Thursday with 298 people on board flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The rebels denied it.
Off duty coal miners joined the search efforts early Friday morning in fields 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.
Large chunks of the Boeing 777 that bore the airline’s red, white and blue markings lay strewn over a field.
The cockpit and one of the turbines lay about a kilometer (more than a half-mile) apart, and residents said the tail landed about 10 kilometers (six miles) away, indicating the aircraft most likely broke up before hitting the ground.
An Associated Press journalist saw bodies and body parts strewn across the field outside the village of Rozsypne about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from the crash site.
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.
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.
More than half the passengers on board – 154 – were Dutch citizens, with 43 from Malaysia, including the 15 crew members. Another 27 were Australians and 12 from Indonesia. The victims included three infants.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it an “act of terrorism” and demanded an international investigation. He insisted his forces did not shoot down the plane.
Earlier in the week, the rebels had claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military planes.
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.
Counsellors were meeting with a few family members in the airport viewing gallery, sealed off from a horde of journalists. One woman emerged in tears and was escorted out of the airport by a security officer without saying anything.
“This is just too much,” said Cindy Tan, who was waiting at the airport for a friend on another flight. “I don’t know really why this happened to a MAS (Malaysia Airlines) plane again.”
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.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Sergey Kavtaradze, a special representative of the Donetsk People’s Republic leader, as denying that the intercepted phone conversations were genuine.
President Barack Obama called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as Poroshenko. 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.”
At the United Nations, Ukrainian Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev told the AP that Russia gave the separatists a sophisticated missile system and thus Moscow bears responsibility, along with the rebels.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament Friday that authorities owe it to the families of the dead to find out exactly what happened and who was responsible. “As things stand, this looks less like an accident than a crime. And if so, the perpetrators must be brought to justice,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was “horrified” by the crash, and said the United States was prepared to help with an international investigation.
Ukraine’s crisis began after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from office in February by a protest movement among citizens angry about endemic corruption and seeking 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.
Kenneth Quinn of the Flight Safety Foundation said an international coalition of countries should lead the investigation. Safety experts say they’re concerned that because the plane crashed in area of Ukraine that is in dispute, political considerations could affect the investigation.
The RIA-Novosti agency quoted rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying talks 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.
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 carriers, including cash-strapped Malaysia Airlines, 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.
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 American 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 United States 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.”
Earlier Thursday, AP journalists saw a launcher that looked like a Buk missile system 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.
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told the AP he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down, but gave no explanation or proof.
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.
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.
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; Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; and Eileen Ng and Satish Cheney in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.