HRABOVO, Ukraine (KXAN/AP) – American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile took down a Malaysia Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, a U.S. official said, but the Obama administration was still scrambling to confirm who launched the strike against MH17.
Vice President Joe Biden said the incident was “not an accident” and described the Malaysia Airlines plane as having been “blown out of the sky.”
Among the unanswered questions was whether the missile was launched from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border they share, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name and insisted on anonymity. But the official said U.S. intelligence assessments suggest it is more likely pro-Russian separatists or the Russians rather than Ukrainian government forces shot down the plane.
The U.S. has sophisticated technologies that can detect missile launches, including the identification of heat from a rocket engine.
Of the known nationalities of the victims, the majority — 154 — were from the Netherlands, while 43, including 15 crew, were from Malaysia. It said that the nationalities of 41 passengers had not been verified yet.
President Barack Obama, speaking during a trip to Delaware, made no mention of who might be responsible for the crash of the plane carrying 298 people, and called the incident a “terrible tragedy.”
Following the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration said U.S. airlines voluntarily agreed not to operate near the Ukraine-Russia border. The agency said it was monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance was necessary.
A global air safety group said an international coalition of countries should lead the investigation of the crash. 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.
Kenneth Quinn of the Flight Safety Foundation said only “an independent, multinational investigation can truly get to the bottom of it without political interference.”
The U.S. planned to send a team of experts to Ukraine to assist with the investigation.
Malaysia Airlines announced it lost contact with the flight via Twitter:
Popular flight-tracking website Flightaware.com showed the plane was last over Ukraine, when it disappeared from tracking. The aircraft was flying at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet when it last reported in to Flightaware.
Twitter exploded with the news in various languages, including pictures and videos of plumes of smoke.
The area where the aircraft crashed has seen frequent rocket attacks in recent days as part of the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainian military officials said a military transport plane was shot at as it flew over the area earlier this week.
The Donetsk region government said a plane crashed Thursday near a village called Grabovo, which it said is currently under the control of armed pro-Russian separatists. The region where the flight was lost has seen severe fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia separatist rebels in recent days.
Shot out of the sky
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 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).
The warring sides in Ukraine claim they did not fire on the jetliner. Only sophisticated missile systems would be capable of striking an airliner flying at 33,000 feet.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash. He insisted that his forces did not shoot down the plane saying “Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” according to the Associated Press.
At the same time, Ukrainan pro-Russia rebels say they didn’t shoot down the airliner. Instead, they blame the Ukrainian armed forces, the AP reported.
Ukraine’s security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that they said showed rebels were responsible for downing a Malaysian airliner.
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 Thursday.
In the second, two rebel fighters — one of them at the scene of the crash — say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the crash site.
Neither recording could be independently verified.
One of the fighters, who states he is at the site of where the plane came to the ground, describes seeing scattered debris. He later describes finding the documents of somebody he identifies as an Indonesian national studying at “Thompson University.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak says he is launching an immediate probe into the jetliner crash.
Flights restricted over warzones
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a Notice to Airmen, or “NOTAM,” in April prohibiting American civilian aircraft and pilots from flying over the Crimea region of the Ukraine. However, that warning did not apply to MH17 and did not cover the area where MH17 was flying when it went down. The FAA has since issued a NOTAM restricting flight in the area where the 777 was shot down.
The German-flagged carrier Lufthansa announced it would no longer route its aircraft over the area.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as he traveled to an event in New York. The White House said Obama and Poroshenko agreed that all evidence from the crash site must remain in Ukraine until international investigators were able to examine it.
The president also called both Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, where the flight originated. Officials said Obama and Rutte discussed the need for international investigators to have immediate access to the crash site.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that Obama spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin before leaving on a trip to Delaware. The White House said reports of the downed plane surfaced during that call and Putin mentioned the incident to his American counterpart.
Malaysia Airlines 777
Malaysia Airlines made headlines in March when a Boeing 777 disappeared over the south Indian Ocean on flight MH370 to China and has not been found. All 241 aboard are presumed dead. Flight MH370 disappeared in an area with scattered radar coverage. Thursday’s flight, MH17, was in an area with heavy radar coverage when it crashed.
The airline flies 13 Boeing 777-200ER aircraft. The crashed aircraft, registration number 9M-MRD, was delivered to Malaysia Airlines on July 29, 1997. A typical cabin configuration for a Malaysia Airlines 777 allows for 35 business class seats and 247 economy seats for a total of 282 passenger seats, according to Seat Guru.com.
Associated Press reports contributed to this article.