WASHINGTON DC —
Malaysia's transport minister said it would be an "outrage against human decency" if it's determined that a Malaysia Airlines plane was deliberately shot down over eastern Ukraine.
Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters Friday in Kuala Lumpur that the purposeful downing of a passenger jet is against international law. He said Malaysia welcomed the call for an independent investigation into Thursday’s crash of the Boeing 777, which was headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The crash killed 298 passengers and crew, scattering debris and body parts over a wide area.
The official said Malaysia is sending a 62-person disaster team to Amsterdam to assist with support to victims' families.
Among the dead, 173 were Dutch. Forty-four were Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, nine British, four German, four Belgian, three Filipino and one each from Canada, New Zealand and Romania. All 15 crew were Malaysian. Nationalities of the others aboard were unclear, Reuters reported.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai speaks at a press conference near Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang July 18, 2014.
Many of the passengers were traveling to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia.
The International AIDS Society, host of the conference scheduled to begin Sunday in Melbourne, has released a statement expressing "sincere sadness" and condolences to the victims' families.
World leaders call for investigation
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said early Friday that its representatives have obtained a promise from the Ukrainian separatists, via videoconference, to cooperate with authorities and allow investigators safe access to the crash site.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon led world leaders' call for a transparent investigation into the crash. The U.N. Security Council met Friday in an emergency meeting to discuss the tragedy, which many speculate was triggered by Ukraine's separatist crisis.
The United States’ top envoy to the U.N. cast suspicion on pro-Russian separatists, faulting Russia for supplying high-powered arms, training and other aid.
U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power told the U.N. Security Council, “This war can be ended. Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.”
The Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, Yuriy Sergeyev, said Ukraine will present evidence to the Security Council of what he says is Russian military involvement in the crash.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said the passenger jet was "blown out of the sky" over eastern Ukraine Thursday, and did not crash by accident.
The United States called for a cease-fire to facilitate the investigation, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “There are many indications that the plane was shot down, so we have to take things very seriously,” she said.
The airliner's two black boxes were recovered, providing voice and data recorders. It was unclear who would analyze the information or whether it would indicate who fired the missiles, Reuters reported.
The news agency reported that local people had been seen taking pieces of debris as souvenirs, compromising evidence in an investigation.
The plane had a clean maintenance record, a Malaysia Airlines official said Friday. Huib Gorter, its European vice president, said “all … systems on the aircraft were functioning normally” before it lost contact, the news agency AFP reported Friday.
Missile targeted plane
VOA's Defense Department correspondent said that U.S. officials confirmed the plane was hit by a missile, but that it wasn't clear who fired the missile or whether it came from Russian or Ukrainian territory.
An official said the plane likely was targeted by someone who may have mistaken it for a military transport plane.
VOA Southeast Asia correspondent Steve Herman, who is covering the crash, said there is growing consensus that the aircraft was shot down.
"This does appear, according to U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence officials, to be a shootdown of the aircraft, perhaps mistaken for a Ukrainian military aircraft. And there's no indication whatsoever that there was pilot error or some sort of mechanical fault that brought down MH17 over eastern Ukraine at this point," said Herman.
Ukraine has accused pro-Russia militants of shooting down the plane.
Putin calls for investigation
Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the incident on Ukraine, citing its offensive against the rebels that began two weeks ago.
In a phone call with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Putin demanded a “thorough and unbiased” investigation into the airliner's downing, the Kremlin said Friday.
“The head of the Russian state underlined that the tragedy yet again highlighted the need for the swiftest peaceful solution to the acute crisis in Ukraine and noted that a thorough and unbiased investigation into all the circumstances of the air catastrophe was needed,” it said.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott also demanded an investigation, calling Russia's response to the crash "deeply, deeply unsatisfactory." He said the idea that Russia can deny any responsibility for the crash because it happened on Ukrainian soil "does not stand up to any serious scrutiny." The crash, he said, "is not an accident, it's a crime."
But former Cuban president Fidel Castro sided with Putin in attributing the crash to the “warmonger” government of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Cuba, Russia's longtime ally and former dependent, "cannot go without expressing its repudiation over the action of such an anti-Russian, anti-Ukrainian and pro-imperialist government," Castro, 87, wrote in a 270-word missive published in official Cuban media Friday, Reuters reported.
Obama offers condolences
Late Thursday, President Barack Obama telephoned Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte to offer condolences. White House officials say the two leaders talked about the need to ensure that international investigators have unimpeded and immediate access to the crash site.
Obama also spoke with Poroshenko and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who said that he could not confirm the plane was shot down, but that the pilot did not send out any distress call.
A NATO statement said that much remains unknown about the crash circumstances, but that Russian-backed separatists have created an increasingly dangerous situation.
Various U.S. and international airlines, including Malaysia Airlines, say they will avoid the airspace over the border between Russia and eastern Ukraine.
Crisis in eastern Ukraine
Eastern Ukraine has been the scene of fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatists who have declared independence in some regions with the aim of joining Russia.
Separatists say they have shot down Ukrainian military planes in recent weeks, and Kyiv accused Russia of shooting down a Ukrainian military aircraft Wednesday.
The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Russia Wednesday for failing to take steps to de-escalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine and for providing weapons and support to the rebels.
This is the second major tragedy for Malaysia Airlines this year. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 was traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 when it disappeared with 239 people on board. It did not send out a distress call and is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. Searchers have found no trace of the plane.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.