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HRABOVE, Ukraine — Ukraine accused pro-Russia separatists of shooting down a Malaysian jetliner with 298 people aboard Thursday, escalating the crisis and threatening to draw both East and West deeper into the conflict.
The rebels denied downing the aircraft.
U.S. intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane but were trying to determine who fired the missile and whether it came from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border, a U.S. official said.
One Ukrainian government official, however, said the Boeing 777 traveling from Amsterdam to Malaysia appeared to have been hit by a Russian-made advanced missile system that recently came into the hands of the pro-Russia separatists waging a bloody uprising in the east.
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 25 miles from the Russian border, where fighting has raged for months.
The aircraft appeared to have broken up before impact. There was no sign of survivors from Flight 17, which took off from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 283 passengers, including three infants, and a crew of 15.
Malaysia’s prime minister said no distress call was made before the plane went down and that the flight route was declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called it an “act of terrorism” and demanded an international inquiry. He insisted his forces did not shoot down the plane.
Ukraine’s security services produced what they said were two intercepted phone conversations that showed rebels were responsible.
In the first call, the security services said, rebel commander Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence officer a phrase in Russian that can be translated either as “we have just shot down a plane” or “they have just down the plane.”
In the second call, two rebel fighters — one of them at the crash scene — say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 15 miles north of the site.
Neither recording could be independently verified.
President Obama called the incident a “terrible tragedy” and spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as Mr. Poroshenko.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden described the plane as being “blown out of the sky.”
Britain asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine.
In Amsterdam, authorities said Thursday night that 154 Dutch passengers had been on board Flight 17. The airline’s senior vice president, Huib Gorter, read out a list of passenger nationalities that included 27 Australians as the next-largest group. All the crew was Malaysian, as were 28 passengers.
The nationalities of nearly 50 passengers have not been established.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said “a number of passengers” were traveling to the 20th annual International AIDS Conference in Melbourne starting Sunday, and some of the world’s foremost researchers were believed to have been on the flight.
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The dramatic loss of yet another Malaysian Airlines flight, six months after the disappearance of the same carrier’s Flight 370 in March, sparked a familiar chain of tragedy worldwide, with distraught family members shuttled to impromptu emergency centers in Asia and Europe.
Ukrainian authorities, belatedly given permission by the rebels to enter the crash site late Thursday, combed through the wreckage near the city of Grabovo.
“We have managed to identify 30 corpses,” said Konstantin Batozsky, an adviser to Donetsk regional governor Serhiy Taruta.
“We will collect all the parts from the airplane and move them to a secure place” away from the rebels, Mr. Batozsky said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak demanded a full, independent investigation and said the United States had offered its help.
“This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia,” Mr. Razak said.
The RIA-Novosti agency on Thursday quoted pro-Russia rebel leader Alexander Borodai as saying talks were under way with Ukrainian authorities on calling a short truce for humanitarian reasons.
He said international organizations would be allowed into the conflict-plagued region.
Any investigation, however, may be hampered by the whereabouts of the plane’s black boxes.
Earlier in the day, the pro-Russia rebels claimed to have found them and were preparing to ship them to Moscow for analysis.
In televised comments, Mr. Putin blamed Ukraine for the incident.
“Certainly the state over whose territory this happened bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy,” he said. “This tragedy would not have happened if there was peace in this land.”
Mr. Putin said the Russian government would do everything in its power to get an “objective picture” of what had happened.
Mr. Obama said his administration was “working to determine whether there were American citizens on board” the plane.
“The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why,” he said.
Hours later, a U.S. official said American intelligence agencies had confirmed that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said government analysts were scrambling to determine who fired the missile.
In recent months, the rebels have shot down numerous Ukrainian military aircraft using short-range surface-to-air missiles.
Experts said such a system would probably not have the capacity to reach a plane flying at 33,000 feet, as Flight 17 was said to be at the time of the strike.
But Ukrainian authorities have said the rebels recently obtained Russian-made Buk anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles — a complex system using a ground radar to guide a missile to its target, and which, experts said, requires some expertise and training to operate.
Rebel spokesmen denied responsibility, shifting blame to Ukrainian forces.
The Ukrainian government said it had nothing to do with downing the plane.
“We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible,” Mr. Poroshenko said.
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,” aviation expert Norman Shanks said.
Before Thursday’s incident, 300 commercial aircraft a day were flying through eastern Ukrainian airspace, with most serving as long-haul flights between Europe and Southeast Asia.
Within hours of the downing of the Malaysian plane, several airlines, including Lufthansa, Delta, and KLM, released statements saying they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.