This story has been updated throughout.
Vice President Joe Biden said “possible repercussions could flow” from the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 after it was shot down over contested Ukrainian airspace Thursday, as the White House called for an “immediate cease fire” between Russian and Ukrainian factions in the region so that investigators could reach the scene.
The plane crash was “not an accident—it was blown out of the sky,” Biden told reporters during a stop in Detroit, confirming the attack, which U.S. officials are saying could not have occurred without Russia’s help. By Thursday evening, several news outlets posted audio provided by the Ukrainian government allegedly of recorded phone calls between separatists describing the attack and their realization that they may have downed a civilian airliner.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday before an economic meeting that Ukraine “bears responsibility” for the attack. “This tragedy would not have occurred if there was peace in that land,” he said in a statement. Putin called the disaster “unacceptable,” and pledged that the Russian military would support the investigation. “We will do everything — everything that depends on us anyway — in order that an objective picture of what happened is part of the public domain.”
Flight MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it went down near the village of Gravobo, near the Russian border, killing all on board, according to Ukraine’s interior minister. An advisor to the minister said the plane was carrying 295 passengers, none of whom are believed to have survived. A correspondent from Reuters confirmed the plane went down in the eastern part of Ukraine, with burning wreckage and bodies scattered as much as 15 kilometers from the crash site. Footage of the wreckage aired globally, including of separatist leaders claiming responsibility.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the crash Thursday afternoon, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. In a statement issued later Thursday evening, Earnest said the U.S. was “shocked” but the downing, urged the crash site be preserved for United Nations inspectors, and offered the assistance of the FBI and air crash experts from the National Transportation Safety Board, widely considered to be the best in the world.
“While we do not yet have all the facts, we do know that this incident occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fueled by Russian support for the separatists, including through arms, materiel, and training. This incident only highlights the urgency with which we continue to urge Russia to immediately take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine and to support a sustainable cease-fire and path toward peace that the Ukrainian government has consistently put forward.”
CNN reported Flight MH17’s passenger manifest included 154 Dutch, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians, 11 Indonesians, six from the United Kingdom, four Germans, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one from Canada. Among the dead are renown AIDS researchers on their way to a conference.
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said his government is launching an investigation into the crash and noted the increased anti-aircraft activity in recent days by separatists in Ukraine’s restive eastern region.
“[T]his is the third tragic accident, after the AN-26 and SU-25 aircrafts of the armed forces of Ukraine were shot down from the Russian territory,” Poroshenko said. “We do not exclude that this aircraft was also shot down, and stress that the armed forces of Ukraine did not commit any actions in the air [at the time of the downing.]” Pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine have declined responsibility for the downed jet, blaming Ukrainian armed forces instead, the Associated Press reported.
In late June, Voice of Russia reported militiamen from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic seized a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile base in the eastern part of the country. The news service Interfax, quoting Poroshenko’s press office, called the incident a “terrorist act.” Ukraine’s foreign ministry claimed the plane was shot down by a Russian Buk missile system.
“If the separatists shot it down, it couldn’t have been done without Russian assistance,” a U.S. defense official told The Wall Street Journal.
Obama directed his national security team to stay in close contact with the Ukrainian government as their investigation into the cause of the crash is carried out. Secretary of State John Kerry added, “The U.S. government remains prepared to assist with a credible, international investigation any way we can, and we will continue to be in touch with all relevant partners as we seek the facts of what happened today.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said: ”[T]here is clearly a need for a full and transparent international investigation.” The Daily Beast reported that pro-Russian rebels already sent Flight MH17’s black box to Moscow for investigation.
Obama and Putin spoke Thursday morning, at Moscow’s request, to discuss the sanctions levied by the United States yesterday.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said if the plane was shot down “by a country, either directly or indirectly, it could be considered an act of war,” according to ABC News.
“Russia has their fingerprints all over it,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said on Fox News.
Stephanie Gaskell, Molly O’Toole, Kedar Pavgi and Kevin Baron contributed to this report.