US Ambassador: Pro-Russia rebels to blame

Last updated 03:54 19/07/2014
Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott blames Russia over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jetliner over eastern Ukraine. Sarah Toms reports.

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US Ambassador Samantha Power told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that the United States cannot rule out help from Russia in the launch of the surface-to-air missile that shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet, killing all 298 on board.

Power said the US believes the plane was likely downed by an SA-11 missile fired from an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. She said Russia has provided SA-11s and other heavy weapons to the separatists.

She said a Western reporter earlier reported an SA-11 system in separatist-controlled territory "and separatists were spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 SAM system close to the site where the plane came down."

"Separatists initially claimed responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane, and claimed responsibility and posted videos that are now being connected to the Malaysian airlines crash," Power said. "Separatist leaders also boasted on social media about shooting down a plane, but later deleted these messages."

"Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel. Thus, we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems," she said.

Power said Ukraine also has SA-11 missiles but the United States is not aware of any in the area where the plane was shot down.

She said the downing of the Malaysian airlines jet also follows a pattern of attacks on aircraft by the separatists.

"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 the council. "Thus it is extremely important than an investigation be commenced immediately."

Russia's ambassador to the UN questioned why Ukrainian aviation authorities allowed a passenger flight through an area of armed clashes where anti-aircraft systems were working.

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin was speaking at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday on the downing of a Malaysian airlines jet.

He said there should be an impartial and open investigation into what happened, and the outcome should not be prejudged.

Churkin said ensuring the security of civilian aviation in a state's airspace is the responsibility of that state.

The Security Council called for "a full, thorough and independent international investigation."

A press statement approved by all 15 council members expresses 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."

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

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."

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CALL FOR CEASEFIRE

Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Friday (local time) for a ceasefire by pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces fighting in eastern Ukraine to allow for negotiations.

Putin said he was in contact with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after a Boeing 777 passenger airliner came down in an area under rebel control.

"Direct talks between the opposing sides must be established as soon as possible. All sides in the conflict must swiftly halt fighting and begin peace negotiations," Putin said at a meeting with Russian Orthodox Church leaders at a monastery Sergiev Posad, near Moscow.

"It is with great concern and sadness that we are watching what is happening in eastern Ukraine. It's awful, it's a tragedy."

Putin, who has blamed the airliner tragedy on Poroshenko for refusing to extend a shaky ceasefire with rebels in the region, said he hoped the Ukrainian president would be able to offer a peaceful way out of the conflict.

Kiev accuses pro-Russian separatists of shooting down the airliner with help from Russian intelligence representatives.

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE

Germany's Angela Merkel challenged Moscow's attempt to pin the downing of a Malaysian airliner on Ukraine, pointing to Russia as a source of separatists' weapons.

But she said it was too soon to talk about retaliatory measures.

The chancellor said there was evidence that the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, which crashed into a field in Ukraine killing all 298 people on board, had been shot down.

It needed a ceasefire between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russian rebels to permit a full, independent investigation into the tragedy, Merkel said, issuing a "very clear call" for Russian President Vladimir Putin to help make this happen.

"These events have once again shown us that what is required is a political solution and above all that it is also Russia that is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment," Merkel told her pre-summer holiday news conference.

The incident could mark a pivotal moment in the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. Putin put the blame on Kiev for renewing an offensive against rebels two weeks ago after a ceasefire collapsed. He urged an "unbiased" inquiry.

A US official said Washington strongly suspected the plane was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow. An Italian government source said "there are no doubts" it was shot down by rebels.

Merkel said it should be a top priority to stop the eastern Ukrainian separatists getting weapons from Russia.

"It is indeed the case that the separatists are heavily- armed and there are many indications that some of these weapons have come across the border from Russia," she said.

The crash happened a day after European Union leaders stepped up sanctions on Moscow, agreeing to penalise Russian companies that help destabilise Ukraine and to block new loans to Russia through two multilateral lenders.

The EU will draw up by the end of July a first list of companies and people to be hit with asset freezes under the new criteria.

GAME CHANGER?

Merkel said that provided leeway for action against Russian firms and individuals, but when pressed on whether the airline incident would trigger wider sanctions, she was cautious.

"Regarding sanctions, I'd like to point out that the events with the plane, as far as I remember, were not even 24 hours ago and at the moment we need to sort out an independent investigation," Merkel told reporters.

"So it's perhaps premature to draw conclusions before we have access to the remains of the plane," she said.

Merkel and Putin are in regular telephone contact over the Ukraine crisis and spoke as recently as Thursday, Merkel said, though it was not clear whether that was before or after news of the passenger plane being downed.

The German leader has urged Putin to use his influence with the separatists to help bring about an end to the fighting in the east in which hundreds of people have been killed.

But her influence on the European Union is seen as one of the reasons why Brussels has been more reluctant than Washington to impose wider economic sanctions. Critics say this is partly because of Germany's strong trade links with Russia, which provides more than a third of its gas imports.

EU diplomats say it is too early to decide on tougher sanctions but the issue will be discussed by EU ministers on Tuesday who are tasked with preparing a first list of people and entities from Russia that would be targeted. That leaves scope to decide which companies, and how many, should be penalised.

Chris Weafer, a partner of the Moscow-based consultancy Macro-Advisory, said that until now it had looked unlikely that Europe or the United States would move on to broader trade and economic measures, known as "stage three" sanctions.

"But the Malaysian airliner tragedy is a potential game changer," he said, adding that if the accusations were proven, it could define what he called "the most dangerous phase in the conflict in eastern Ukraine".

However, Otilia Dhand at the Teneo political risk consultancy in London expected limited fallout.

"It is a horrible tragedy, but in two or three days' time, everyone will fall back to the positions they held before it happened, including the Russians," she said.

- Reuters, AP

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