WATCH ABOVE: Malaysian minister calls downing of MH17 “an outrage”
- More than 180 bodies recovered at crash site
- Pro-Russian rebels issue conflicting reports about recovering recording devices
- Several passengers were heading to an AIDS conference in Australia
- Total number of passengers on board now at 298
- At least one Canadian confirmed on board
ROZSYPNE, Ukraine – Emergency workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners – dressed in overalls and covered in soot – spread out Friday across the sunflower fields and villages of eastern Ukraine, searching the wreckage of a jetliner shot down as it flew miles above the country’s battlefield.
The attack Thursday afternoon killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations – including vacationers, students and a large contingent of scientists heading to an AIDS conference in Australia.
U.S. intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, but could not say who fired it.
The Ukraine government in Kyiv, the separatist pro-Russia rebels they are fighting in the east and the Russian government that Ukraine accuses of supporting the rebels all deny shooting the passenger plane down. Moscow also denies backing the rebels.
By midday, 181 bodies had been located, according to emergency workers at the sprawling crash site.
Earlier Friday, an aide to rebel leader Alexander Borodai said authorities had recovered eight out of 12 recording devices.
Since planes usually have two black boxes – one for recording flight data and the other for recording cockpit voices – it was not clear what the number 12 referred to.
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.”
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 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.
In the sunflower fields around Rozsypne, 40 kilometres from the Russian border, lines of men disappeared into the thick, tall growth that was over their heads. One fainted after finding a body. Another body was covered in a coat.
In Hrabove, several miles away, huge numbers of simple sticks, some made from tree branches, were affixed with red or white rags to mark spots where body parts were found.
Ukraine Foreign Ministry representative Andriy Sybiga said 181 bodies had been found, citing local emergency workers. He said the bodies will be taken to Kharkiv, a government-controlled city 270 kilometres to the north, for identification.
WATCH: A computer rendering of the surface-to-air rocket strike which is suspected to have brought down MH17 Thursday
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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions – but 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.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk described the downing as an “international crime” whose perpetrators would have to be punished in an international tribunal.
WATCH: Eastern Ukraine was already in turmoil and now, the shooting down of a civilian airliner will further complicate things. Paul Johnson reports.
“Yesterday’s terrible tragedy will change our lives. The Russians have done it now,” he was cited as saying by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
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.
Flight route approved, but many airlines avoiding area
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.
Air Canada said it has been “proactively avoiding airspace over the region for some time already.” The carrier didn’t foresee any impact on its passengers.
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.
Canadian on board downed Malaysia Airlines Flight
Malaysia Airlines said at least one Canadian was on board the flight.
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.
A spokesman for Lynne Yelich, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said Ottawa is aware of at least one Canadian citizen among the victims.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement expressing shock and sadness about the destruction of the plane and said Canada is willing to assist authorities in determining the cause of the crash.
Friends and relatives looking for information on Canadians known to be on board Flight MH17 should contact the department’s Emergency Watch and Response Centre at 1-800-387-3124 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Intercepted phone conversations
Ukraine’s security services have produced what they say are two intercepted telephone conversations that they claim shows rebels are responsible for downing the plane.
In the first call, security services say rebel commander Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence officer that rebel forces shot down a plane. 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 kilometres north of the crash site. Neither recording has been independently verified.
WATCH: Ukrainian authorities release audio recordings they say show rebels shot down MH17
One of the fighters, who states he is at the site of where the plane came to the ground, describes seeing scattered debris, and later describes finding the documents of somebody he identifies as an Indonesian national studying at “Thompson University.”
VIDEO GALLERY: ‘Fireball’ at moment of Malaysian airliner crash, aftermath at crash scene, terror and aviation experts weigh in and U.S. President Obama shares condolences
A launcher was seen by Associated Press journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday, which is held by the rebels. The Buk missile system can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 metres.
Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute, said both Ukrainian and Russian forces have SA-17 missile systems – also known as Buk ground-to-air launcher systems.
He said Russia had supplied separatist rebels with military hardware, but he had seen no evidence “of the transfer of that type of system from Russia.” The weapons that the rebels are known to have do not have the capacity to reach beyond 4,500 metres.
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told The Associated Press that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot it down but gave no explanation for that statement. Purgin said he was not aware of whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but even if they did, there had no fighters capable of operating it.
U.S. President Barack Obama was informed of the crash in a phone call from Putin, and called the crash a “terrible tragedy.” Britain has asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Ukraine. Britain’s U.N. Mission said Thursday the time of the meeting has not been set. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had been attending a European Union summit in Brussels, headed back to the Netherlands to deal with fallout from the crash.
The Boeing plane departed Amsterdam July 17 at 12 p.m. local time, scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 6:10 a.m. It was a Boeing 777-200ER, which was delivered to Malaysia Airlines on July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets, which sells and tracks information about aircraft. It has more than 43,000 hours of flight time and 6,950 takeoffs and landings.