GRABOVE, Ukraine: The United States built a case that pro-Moscow separatists downed a Malaysian airliner in Ukraine with a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people on board — with the possible technical assistance of Russians.
The first international monitors struggled to gain access to the gruesome body-strewn crash site in rebel-held eastern Ukraine as rebels ruled out a cease-fire.
Grief over the tragedy meanwhile turned to fury and vows that justice would be done, as heart-rending stories emerged of the men, women and children aboard the doomed Boeing 777.
US President Barack Obama presented on Friday the latest conclusions of US intelligence analysts about the “unspeakable” carnage.
He cranked up political pressure on President Vladimir Putin to take action, and on Europe to do more to punish his escapades in Ukraine.
“Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” Obama said.
He avoided definitive conclusions about what exactly happened to Flight MH17, but said only a sophisticated missile could destroy a passenger jet flying at more than 30,000 feet.
He said previous attacks by separatists on government aircraft in Ukraine suggested rebels benefited from Russian technical expertise.
“A group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes, or they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training, and that is coming from Russia,” Obama said.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said the complexity of the SA-11 missile Washington believes was used in the attack would likely preclude it being solely operated by separatist forces.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said: “It strains credulity that (the missile) can be used by separatists without some measure of Russian support and assistance.”
In calls to the leaders of Germany, Britain and Australia, Obama pressed for “a prompt, full, unimpeded and transparent international investigation” and stressed the need for immediate access to the crash site.
US Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk for the second day running.
Tusk and Biden noted that Russia was “supplying weapons and training — including anti-aircraft weapons — to the separatists, with profoundly de-stabilizing consequences,” a White House statement said.
In Buenos Aires, China’s President Xi Jinping said Beijing favored a “fair and objective” probe.
International observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were able to gain partial access to one of the crash sites but were blocked from going further by armed rebels “for their own” safety.
The OSCE team — already on the ground monitoring fighting in Ukraine — are not probing the causes of the crash but want to secure debris and oversee the recovery of bodies.
Swiss OSCE representative Thomas Greminger said 17 monitors had limited access to the site for 75 minutes, but had withdrawn to the city of Donetsk for security reasons.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans meanwhile arrived in Kiev with a team of 15 investigators, the national ANP news agency reported.
The world was reeling from the shock loss of hundreds of civilians — from AIDS researchers en route to a conference in Australia, to Dutch families off on holiday, to Muslims headed home to celebrate Eid with family.
Questions were meanwhile being asked about why the Malaysia Airlines plane was flying over a war zone.
Europe’s air safety agency strongly recommended that flights avoid eastern Ukraine and Crimean airspace. The US Federal Aviation Administration issued a similar advisory on Thursday.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte bristled with anger, pledging to “personally see to it” that those responsible for attacking the plane be brought to justice.
At the other end of the plane’s uncompleted flight path, Prime Minister Najib Razak — embroiled in a Malaysia Airlines disaster for the second time in four months — had a similar warning.
Local authorities said 182 bodies had been recovered from the crash site but an AFP crew at the scene said that dozens of severely mutilated corpses remained scattered about.
One devastated relative told how her sister Ninik Yuriani, 56 — of Indonesian descent but a Dutch national — was on her way to Jakarta to celebrate the Muslim festival Eid.
“My family is now gathered at my sister’s house in Jakarta. We’ve decided to keep this from my mother. She’s so old and weak, I don’t think she could take it,” Enny Nurahni, 54, told AFP.
Malaysia Airlines said 283 passengers and 15 crew were aboard the plane — including, at last count, 192 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians, 27 Australians and 12 Indonesians.
Obama revealed that one dual US-Dutch national was killed.
Obama blamed Russia for creating the conditions in which the jet was shot down.
The US leader, who stiffened sanctions on Russia on Wednesday, also prodded Europe to do more to restrain Putin, who he said had the power to rein in separatists but refused to use it.
“I think that this certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine,” Obama said.
The UN Security Council unanimously demanded a “full, thorough and independent investigation” at the start of a meeting on the Ukraine crisis that saw fraught exchanges between Western countries and Russia.
Local rescue workers told AFP that at least one of the plane’s black boxes had been found, but the whereabouts of the vital data was unknown.
Comments attributed to a pro-Russian rebel chief suggested his men may have downed the plane by mistake, believing it to be a Ukrainian army transport aircraft.
Ukraine released recordings of what it said was an intercepted call between an insurgent commander and a Russian intelligence officer as they realized they had shot down a passenger jet.
Putin said Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash but stated he was in contact with Ukraine’s Poroshenko to achieve “long-term peace”.
Separatist leaders ruled out a truce to allow the plane probe to go ahead and fierce clashes continued Friday, with local authorities saying 20 civilians were killed in the rebel-held city of Lugansk, some 100 kilometres to the north-east of the crash site.