07/18/2014 01:36 EDT | Updated 09/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: U.S. wants Ukraine ceasefire for crash probe

U.S. President Barack Obama said today all parties to the conflict in Ukraine "must adhere to an immediate ceasefire" while an independent investigation is held into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

He also said that one U.S. citizen was aboard the plane.

The UN Security Council called earlier for "a full, thorough and independent international investigation" into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, as the U.S. came out blazing in an emergency session against possible Russian involvement.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told the Security Council that her country can't rule out Russian involvement in the launch of the surface-to-air missile that shot down MH17, killing all 298 people aboard.

"If indeed Russian-backed separatists were behind this attack on a civilian airliner, they and their backers would have good reason to cover up evidence of their crime," Power told an emergency meeting of the Security Council.

"Thus, it is extremely important that an investigation be commenced immediately."

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Council members stood in a moment of silent tribute to the 298 victims at the start of the emergency council meeting.

A  press statement expressed the council's "deepest sympathies and condolences to the families of the victims, and to the people and governments of all those killed in the crash."

The council called for an investigation "in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines and for appropriate accountability." It stressed the need for "immediate access by investigators to the crash site to determine the cause of the incident."

Ukraine's emergency services workers have two black boxes from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, reports say.

Earlier, pro-Russian separatists said they also had several black boxes from Thursday's crash in the Donetsk region in which 298 people died.

"They had planned to hand them over to Moscow for analysis, but Russia's foreign minister has said that his government will not accept them," the CBC's Jeff Semple reported from London.

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It wasn't immediately clear what the pro-Russians would do with the flight recorders, which are key to determining what happened to the plane.  

The UN Security Council's emergency session Friday is reportedly to include a briefing by the UN's political affairs chief, as investigators work to determine what happened leading up to the deadly crash..

Earlier Friday, a team of 30 international observers and experts arrived by helicopter at the crash site to try to piece together how and why the incident occurred, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe announced.

U.S. intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought down MH17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, but they could not say who fired it.

Ukraine has said several of its planes and helicopters have been shot down in four months of fighting in the region, including an An-26 on Monday and an Su-25 fighter on Wednesday by an air-to-air missile — Kyiv's strongest accusation yet of direct Russian involvement.

The Ukraine government, the separatist pro-Russia rebels in the east, and the Russia government believed to be supporting the rebels, all deny shooting the Malaysian passenger plane down.

"The preponderance of evidence … is that the Russian-backed militia fired a rocket, not intending to wipe out a Malaysian plane, but intending to wipe out a Ukrainian plane — and they got the wrong plane," said former CBC correspondent Brian Stewart, now a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.

"And I think the Russian government is probably upset by this and deeply perturbed by it. But it has, however, happened, and it has to be faced."

By midday, 181 bodies had been located, according to emergency workers at the sprawling crash site.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a ceasefire Friday in eastern Ukraine and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible. A day earlier, he had blamed Ukraine for the crash, saying the government in Kiev was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions.

But he did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry released a video purporting to show a truck carrying the Buk missile launcher it said was used to fire on the plane with one of its four missiles apparently missing. The ministry said the footage was filmed by a police surveillance squad at dawn Friday as the truck was heading to the city of Krasnodon toward the Russian border.

There was no way to independently verify the video.

Ukraine has called for an international probe to determine the attacker of the plane, and the United States has offered to help. But access to the site remained difficult and dangerous. The road from Donetsk, the largest city in the region, to the crash site was marked by five rebel checkpoints Friday, with document checks at each.

An angry Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott demanded an independent inquiry into the downing.

"The initial response of the Russian ambassador was to blame Ukraine for this and I have to say that is deeply, deeply unsatisfactory," he said. "It's very important that we don't allow Russia to prevent an absolutely comprehensive investigation so that we can find out exactly what happened here."

"This is not an accident, it's a crime," he added.

For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Kyiv's accusations that Moscow could be behind the attack.

"Regarding those claims from Kyiv that we allegedly did it ourselves: I have not heard a truthful statement from Kyiv for months," he told the Rossiya 24 television channel.

The fate of the black-box evidence, if it is in Russian hands, may raise tensions with the Russians, Stewart said.

"I think they are just playing for time at the moment …. I think it would be very hard to imagine them saying to the rest of the world, 'We have the black box, and you are not going to hear it, you're not going to see it, you're not going to have anything to do with it.'

"That would, I think, cause an escalation beyond anything we could imagine right now."

The crash site was spread out over fields between two villages in eastern Ukraine — Rozsypne and Hrabove — and fighting apparently still continued nearby. In the distance, the thud of Grad missile launchers being fired could be heard Friday morning.

Ukraine Foreign Ministry representative Andriy Sybiga said the bodies that have been found will be taken to Kharkiv, a government-controlled city 270 kilometres to the north, for identification.

Among the debris were watches and smashed mobile phones, charred boarding passes and passports. An "I (heart) Amsterdam" T-shirt and a guidebook to Bali hinted at holiday plans.

Large chunks of the Boeing 777 that bore the airline's red, white and blue markings lay strewn over one field. The cockpit and one turbine lay a kilometre apart, and residents said the tail landed another 10 kilometres away.

One rebel militiaman in Rozsypne told The Associated Press that the plane's fuselage showed signs of being struck by a projectile.

The area has seen heavy fighting between government troops and pro-Russia separatists, and rebels had bragged about shooting down two Ukrainian military jets in the region just a day earlier.

An assistant to the insurgency's military commander, Igor Girkin, said Friday on condition of anonymity that eight out of the plane's 12 recording devices had been located at the crash site. He did not elaborate. Since airplanes normally have both a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, it was not exactly clear what devices he was referring to.

He said Girkin was still considering whether to give international crash investigators access to the sprawling crash site. Any investigators would need specific permission from the rebel leadership before they could safely film or take photos at the crash site, he said.

Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said the plane was flying at about 10,000 metres when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000 metres.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lay repeatedly insisted that the airline's path was an internationally approved route and denied accusations that Malaysia Airlines was trying to save fuel and money by taking a more direct flight path across Ukraine.

"I want to stress that this route is an approved path that is used by many airlines including 15 Asia-Pacific airlines. We have not been informed that the path cannot be used," he said

Malaysia's prime minister said there was no distress call before the plane went down.

Aviation authorities in several countries, including the FAA in the United States, had issued previous warnings not to fly over parts of Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March. Within hours of the crash Thursday, several airlines announced they were avoiding parts of Ukrainian airspace.

On Friday, Ukraine's state aviation service closed the airspace over two regions currently gripped by separatist fighting — Donetsk and Luhansk — and Russian aviation regulators said Russian airlines have suspended all flights over Ukraine.

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines updated its nationality count of passengers, saying the plane carried 173 Dutch, 24 Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, 9 British, 4 German, 4 Belgian, 3 Filipino and one person each from Canada and New Zealand.

Passengers on the plane included a large contingent of world-renowned AIDS researchers and activists headed to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. News of their deaths sparked an outpouring of grief across the global scientific community.

In Kuala Lumpur, several relatives of victims were meeting with counsellors at the international airport. A distraught Akmar Mohamad Noor, 67, said her older sister was coming to visit the family for the first time in five years.

"She called me just before she boarded the plane and said, `See you soon,"' Akmar said.

In the Netherlands, flags were flying at half-staff across the country as residents mourned the victims.