HRABOVE, Ukraine: U.S. President Barack Obama demanded that Russia stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine after the downing of a Malaysian airline by a surface-to-air missile he said was fired from rebel territory, raising the prospect of new sanctions on Moscow.
Calling it “an outrage of unspeakable proportions,” Obama stopped short of directly blaming Russia, but warned that he was prepared to tighten economic sanctions, while backing international calls for a rapid and credible investigation.
Britain echoed the comments, as a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said evidence suggested separatists had shot down the jet with a surface-to-air missile fired from Torez, an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
“We assess that, without compelling information to the contrary, it is increasingly likely that MH17 was shot down by a separatist missile,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Ten British nationals on the plane were killed, he added.
Russia expressed anger at implications that it was to blame, saying people should not prejudge the outcome of an inquiry.
There were no survivors from the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, a Boeing 777. The United Nations said 80 of the 298 aboard were children. The deadliest attack on a commercial airliner, it scattered bodies over miles of rebel-held territory near the border with Russia.
Staff from Europe’s OSCE security body visited the site but complained that they did not have the full access they wanted.
The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula a month later.
“This outrageous event underscores that it is time for peace and security to be restored in Ukraine,” Obama said, adding that Russia had failed to use its influence to curb rebel violence.
While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the United States has been more aggressive than the European Union. Analysts say the response of Germany and other EU powers to the incident – possibly imposing more sanctions – could be crucial in deciding the next phase of the standoff with Moscow.
The U.N. Security Council called for a “full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the downing of the plane and “appropriate accountability” for those responsible.
Kiev and Moscow immediately blamed each other for the disaster, triggering a new phase in their propaganda war.
Leaders of the rebels’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the intercontinental flight.
Russia’s Defense Ministry later pointed the finger at Ukrainian ground forces, saying it had picked up radar activity from a Ukrainian missile system south of Donetsk when the airliner was brought down, Russian media reported.
The Ukrainian security council said no missiles had been fired from its armories and officials accused separatists of moving unused missiles into Russia after the incident.
The Ukrainian government released recordings it said were of Russian intelligence officers discussing the shooting down of a civilian airliner by rebels who may have mistaken it for a Ukrainian military plane. The plane’s two black boxes – voice and data recorders – were recovered, but it was unlikely they could determine that it was a missile strike, let alone who launched it.
Ukraine accused separatists of firing a long-range, Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile, and U.S. officials said they saw this as possibly the most likely cause of the disaster.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described it as a “tragedy” but did not affix blame, calling for a “thorough and unbiased” investigation and a cease-fire to allow for negotiations.