UNITED States President Barack Obama has demanded Russia cease support for separatists in eastern Ukraine after the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, describing the killing of 298 passengers and crew as “an outrage of unspeakable proportions”.
He spoke amid a growing storm of anger against Vladimir Putin’s government last night and an increasing number of claims that pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have been handed heavy weapons capable of shooting down an airliner 33,000ft up. Russia has denied any involvement.
Mr Obama said: “This was a global tragedy… the eyes of the world are on eastern Ukraine, and we are going to make sure that the truth is out.”
He confirmed the Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur flight was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from an area controlled by Russian-backed rebels and noted that separatists had shot down a Ukrainian fighter jet and a cargo plane in the region.
He said: “Set aside what’s happened with respect to the Malaysian airliner, a group of separatists cannot shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training and that’s coming from Russia.
“We don’t yet know exactly what happened with respect to Malaysia Airlines, although obviously we are beginning to draw some conclusions. There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 ft and shoot down a passenger jet.
“We have increasing confidence that it came by areas controlled by the separatists.
“But without having a definitive judgment on those issues yet, what we do know is the violence taking place there is facilitated in large part because of Russian support and they have the ability to move those separatist in a different direction.
“If Mr Putin makes a decision that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine, across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then it will stop.”
At least one American was among the almost 300 killed, he said.
Mr Obama stopped short of directly blaming Russia for the downing but warned that he was prepared to tighten economic sanctions.
He echoed international calls for a rapid and credible investigation and ruled out any American military intervention.
But noting the global impact of the crash – with victims from a dozen countries across four continents – he said the stakes were high for Europe, a clear call for it to follow the more robust sanctions on Russia already imposed by Washington.
Russia, whom Obama said was letting the rebels bring in weapons, has expressed anger at implications it was to blame, saying people should not prejudge the outcome of the inquiry.
Mr Putin has called for opposing sides in Ukraine to lay down their arms and enter talks.
The deadliest attack on a commercial airliner, it scattered bodies over miles of rebel-held territory near the border with Russia.
Staff from Europe’s OSCE security body visited the site but complained that they did not have the full access they wanted.
The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula a month later.
Prime Minister David Cameron described the catastrophe as an “absolutely appalling, shocking, horrific incident” that “cannot be allowed to stand”.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called by Britain, the UK’s ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, said “searching questions” had to be asked about Russia’s links with separatists and called for Moscow to issue an “unequivocal condemnation” of their actions.
He said without Russian support the armed groups would “wither” and claimed three Russian citizens were leading figures in the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic.
Analysts say the response of Germany and other EU powers to the incident – possibly imposing more sanctions – could be crucial in deciding the next phase of the stand-off with Moscow.
Some commentators even recalled Germany’s sinking of the Atlantic liner Lusitania in 1915, which helped push the United States into the First World War, but outrage in the West at Thursday’s carnage is not seen as leading to military intervention.
The UN Security Council called for a “full, thorough and independent international investigation” and “appropriate accountability” for those responsible.
In Kiev yesterday, the Ukrainian government released recordings it said were of Russian intelligence officers discussing the shooting down of a civilian airliner by rebels.