Rozsypne, Ukraine: Emergency workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners spread out Friday across the sunflower fields and villages of eastern Ukraine, searching the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines jet shot down as it flew high above the country’s battlefield. The attack Thursday afternoon killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations – including vacationers, students and a large contingent of scientists heading to an AIDS conference in Australia. At least 189 of the dead were from the Netherlands.
U.S. intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it traveled from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. 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. The Ukrainian government in Kiev, the separatist pro-Russia rebels they are fighting and the Russia government that Ukraine accuses of supporting the rebels all denied shooting the plane down. Moscow also denies backing the rebels.
After holding an emergency session, the U.N. Security Council called for “a full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the downing of the plane. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Friday for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible. A day earlier, Putin had blamed Ukraine for the crash, saying Kiev was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions. But he did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry released a video purporting to show a truck carrying the Buk missile launcher it said was used to fire on the plane with one of its four missiles apparently missing. The ministry said the footage was filmed by a police surveillance squad at dawn Friday as the truck was heading to the city of Krasnodon toward the Russian border.
There was no way to independently verify the video. Ukraine’s state aviation service closed the airspace Friday over two border regions gripped by separatist fighting – Donetsk and Luhansk – and Russian airlines suspended all flights over Ukraine. Access to the sprawling crash site remained difficult and dangerous. The road into it from Donetsk, the largest city in the region, was marked by five rebel checkpoints Friday, with document checks at each.
Donetsk separatist leader Aleksandr Borodai said 17 representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and four Ukrainian experts had traveled into rebel-controlled areas to begin an investigation into the attack. The militia allowed them to look at part of the crash site, but refused to let them view the area where the engines came down.
By late afternoon, 181 bodies had been located, according to local emergency workers in contact with officials in Kiev. In addition to the Dutch, passengers on the plane included 29 Malaysians, 28 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos and one person each from Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong, according to the airlines and those governments.
The separatist rebels who control the crash site issued conflicting reports Friday about whether they had found the plane’s black boxes or not. “No black boxes have been found … we hope that experts will track them down and create a picture of what has happened,” said Borodai. Yet earlier Friday, an aide to the military leader of Borodai’s group said authorities had recovered eight out of 12 recording devices. Since planes usually have two black boxes – one for recording flight data and the other for recording cockpit voices – it was not clear what the aide was referring to.
The crash site was spread out over fields between two villages in eastern Ukraine – Rozsypne and Hrabove. 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 thick, tall growth that reached over their heads. One fainted after finding a body. Another body was covered in a coat.
About 70 off-duty coal miners joined the search, their faces still sooty from work.In Hrabove, several miles away, large numbers of 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 the bodies will be taken to Kharkiv, a government-controlled city 270 kilometers (170 miles) to the north, for identification.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said 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). Malaysia’s prime minister said there was no distress call before the plane went down. Among the debris were smashed watches and mobile phones, charred boarding passes and passports. An “I (heart) Amsterdam” T-shirt and a guidebook to Bali hinted at holiday plans gone awry.