UPDATE: 7/18/14, 8:38 a.m.
LONDON (AP) — To figure out why a Malaysian jetliner fell from the sky, investigators will use the wreckage of any missile found to determine where it came from and who fired it, experts said Friday. That may be easier said than done in the middle of a war zone.
Investigators face formidable obstacles in deciphering a disaster scene spread over 20 square kilometers (eight square miles) of contested ground in eastern Ukraine — amid a conflict in which both sides have interests that may outweigh a desire to uncover the truth.
"We are in a country that is at war, and that is in a war of communication," aviation analyst Gerard Feldzer said in Paris. "Everyone is pushing a pawn."
All 283 passengers and 15 crew members aboard the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight were killed in Thursday's crash. U.S authorities and aviation experts say the Boeing 777 was likely brought down by a ground-to-air missile, but so far there is no proof of who fired it. Ukraine and the insurgents blame each other.
The U.N. Security Council called Friday for "a full, thorough and independent international investigation" into the downing of the plane, but that is a complicated proposition.
Under international civil aviation rules, Ukraine should take the lead in investigating an airline accident on its territory. Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, told The Associated Press that the investigation would be carried out by the Interior Ministry and the Security Services of Ukraine, who would work alongside international observers.
It was unclear what access either group would have to the crash site.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent a team of international monitors to the site, a swathe of smoldering wreckage and body parts near Ukraine's border with Russia, but they later reported only limited access to the wreckage.
European Union officials said Friday that Ukraine has first claim on the plane's two black boxes — a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder — which could contain valuable clues about what happened in the moments before the crash.
An assistant to the insurgency's military commander said Friday that rebels had recovered multiple devices from the wreckage and were considering what to do with them, raising fears they could be headed to Moscow. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had no intention of getting hold of the boxes, which he said should be given to the relevant international organizations. And insurgent leader Aleksandr Borodai later contradicted his colleague and said the rebels don't have them anyway.
Defense experts said the plane was likely shot down by a missile fired from a Buk system, Soviet-era equipment that is in the arsenals of both Russia and Ukraine. There was no previous evidence of separatist rebels using such missiles, though a rebel Twitter account boasted last month about seizing a Buk system from Ukrainian forces, and AP journalists saw such a system hours before the crash Thursday in rebel-held territory.
Feldzer, the air-accident expert, said investigators' goal would be to "find the debris of the missile in question and determine the trajectory." Once investigators reach the site, they should be able to discover whether the plane was hit by one or more missiles, and the size of the missile system involved.
But, he said, "that won't determine who did it," unless investigators can find a satellite photo or radar records of the missile.
Justin Bronk, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based military think tank, said the United States has sophisticated military satellites capable of detecting a missile launch, but might be unwilling to share its images in order to protect its secret surveillance capabilities.
"They will probably try to liaise with civilian satellite operators to see if there are any who also picked up the trail on infra-red sensors so that they can publicly release that data," he said.
The crash site is vast, and experts said rebel fighters may have removed key evidence in the chaotic hours after the disaster, as they joined emergency workers and local coal miners to comb the wreckage and recover the bodies.
Charles Heyman, editor of "Armed Forces of the EU," said missile casings could help establish who had supplied the weapons that brought down the plane. But he said it was likely that the rebels — if they fired the missile — would have removed any missile-casing debris from the scene.
Heyman said the missile launcher would bear ID numbers that could establish whether it was recently supplied by Russia or came from Ukrainian forces.
But he said if rebels mistakenly targeted a commercial airliner, thinking it was a Ukrainian military plane, they may have subsequently fled and taken the missile launcher into Russia.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry released video purporting to show exactly that: a truck carrying a Buk missile launcher with one of its four missiles apparently missing, rolling toward the Russian border. The ministry said the footage was captured by a police surveillance squad at dawn Friday. There was no way to independently verify that claim.
"If I was the rebel chief of staff, I'd have had it taken away, dismantled and blown up," Heyman said, "and then bury the pieces in a swamp."
UPDATE: 7/17/14, 2:51 p.m.
MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladmir Putin says Ukraine bears responsibility for the crash of a Malaysian airliner.
A Kremlin statement early Friday said Putin opened a meeting with his economic advisers by calling for a moment of silence over the crash.
Then, he said, "This tragedy would not have happened if there were peace on this land, if the military actions had not been renewed in southeast Ukraine. And, certainly, the state over whose territory this occurred bears responsibility for this awful tragedy."
UPDATE: 7/17/14, 2:00 p.m.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's prime minister says downed jetliner did not make any distress call.
UPDATE: 7/17/14, 1:22 p.m.
HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's security services produced what they said were two intercepted telephone conversations that they said showed rebels were responsible for downing a Malaysian airliner.
In the first call, the security services said, rebel commander Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence officer that rebel forces shot down a plane Thursday.
In the second, two rebel fighters — one of them at the scene of the crash — say the rocket attack was carried out by a unit of insurgents about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of the crash site.
Neither recording could be independently verified.
One of the fighters, who states he is at the site of where the plane came to the ground, describes seeing scattered debris. He later describes finding the documents of somebody he identifies as an Indonesian national studying at "Thompson University."
UPDATE: 11:46 a.m.
WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) -- President Barack Obama said Thursday that the passenger plane downed over Ukraine "looks like it may be a terrible tragedy" and his top priority is finding out whether American citizens were on board.
Obama said he's directed his aides to stay in close contact with Ukrainian officials and offer U.S. help to determine what caused the crash. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 people an act of terrorism.
An Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the crash site about 25 miles from the Russian border, where government and pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, said on his Facebook page that the plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet when it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher.
Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama was on a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin when news of the downed plane broke. Earnest and the Kremlin said Putin mentioned those early reports in the call, but provided no details of what the two leaders said about it.
"The world is watching reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border," Obama said later as he took the stage for a speech in Delaware to discuss transportation funding. "It looks like it might be a terrible tragedy. Right now we're working to determine whether there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority."
The rest of the phone call between Obama and Putin was dedicated to the general situation in eastern Ukraine, and recent U.S. sanctions against Russian individuals and companies.
The Federal Aviation Administration had warned U.S. pilots earlier this year not to fly over portions of the Ukraine in the Crimea region, according to notices posted on the agency's website.
The notices were posted on April 23. The U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization and the aviation authorities in most countries issue similar notices for areas where unrest or military conflict creates a risk of being shot down.
The FAA had not issued any new warnings Thursday afternoon in the immediate aftermath of reports that a Malaysian airliner had been shot down over the Ukraine.
UPDATE: 10:38 a.m.
GRABOVO, Ukraine (AP) -- An Associated Press journalist has counted at least 22 bodies at the plane wreckage site in eastern Ukraine involving a Malaysia Airlines commercial flight.
The plane appeared to have broken up before impact and the wreck is scattered over a wide area in the eastern Ukraine village of Grabovo.
The field around the burning wreck was strewn with body parts and the belongings of the passengers Thursday.
Malaysia Airlines has said 295 people were aboard the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
UPDATE: 9:43 a.m.
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukraine's president says his country's armed forces did not shoot at any airborne targets, after reports that a Malaysian Airlines plane went down over Ukraine.
President Petro Poroshenko says Thursday "we do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets."
Poroshenko said "we are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible."
Video courtesy: Youtube.com
UPDATE: 7/17/14, 9:00 a.m.
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- A Ukrainian official said a Malaysian passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down Thursday over a town in the east of the country.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's Interior Minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher. A similar launcher was seen by Associated Press journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday.
Malaysia Airlines said on its Twitter feed that it "has lost contact of MH17 from Amsterdam. The last known position was over Ukrainian airspace. More details to follow."
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- An adviser to Ukraine's Interior Minister says a Malaysian passenger plane carrying 295 people has been shot down over a town in the east of the country.
Anton Gerashenko says on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit Thursday by a missile fired from a Buk launcher.
A similar launcher was seen by Associated Press journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday.