(USA TODAY) - A senior U.S. defense official said Friday that "all indications" point to Russian-backed separatists inside Ukraine firing an anti-aircraft missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines plane with 298 people aboard.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said the preliminary assessment indicates that separatists fired the sophisticated Russian-made SA-11 missile from inside Ukraine.
Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine's government have both denied involvement. Russia has not specifically charged anyone with firing the missile, but instead blames Ukraine's government for creating instability that led to the tragedy.
The SA-11 mobile system typically is linked into a radar system and requires a crew to operate, the official noted, raising questions as to how separatists acquired such equipment and who is advising them on its use.
The Washington Postand CNN also reported Friday that a preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment of the crash indicated the separatists launched the ill-fated missile. The official cautions that the assessment is not final and that U.S. analysts are still investigating, the newspaper says.
The reports coincide with a statement Friday by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power who told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that the plane was "likely downed by a surface to air missile ... operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine."
Power added that investigators "cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel" since it was unlikely pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine could have operated the SA-11 missile system on their own.
She concluded her remarks by appealing to Russia to de-escalate tensions between Ukraine and the rebels, which she said had been "fueled by Russian support for separatists and by the Russian failure to follow through on its commitments."
"Russia can end this war," Power added. "Russia must end this war."
In addition, the Ukrainian Security Service released purported tapes late Thursday of intercepted conversations of Russian-backed separatists and a Russian military intelligence official discussing the shootdown of MH17 that one of the separatists says was carried out by a separatist unit.
All 298 people aboard the airliner were killed when it crashed Thursday in eastern Ukraine about 30 miles from the Russian border.
Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, got visibly choked up as she spoke about three infants who were on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that crashed in Ukraine on Thursday. VPC
No distress calls came from the Boeing 777 before it plummeted from the sky with 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board. The crash left a debris field stretching up to 10 miles, with victims and body parts strewn across the countryside.
Among the passengers on the flight were 189 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians and 27 Australians and 12 Indonesians. Just four passengers' nationalities remain unknown, according to a news release by Malaysia Airlines.
Given that the overwhelming majority of the victims of the attack are from Holland, Malaysia Airlines is sending 40 staff members to Amsterdam "to support the families," the airline said in a statement.
Malaysian Airlines officials have so far not identified any Americans among the passengers, although they cautioned Friday that some nationalities have still not been verified.
"We continue to seek information to determine whether there were any American citizens on board," the White House said in a statement late Thursday.
In the same statement, the White House also raised concerns that the evidence at the crash site might be tampered with.
The plane was shot down over Ukraine's war-torn Donetsk region, which has seen months of fierce fighting between Ukraine and pro-Russian militants. The already difficult task of determining the cause of the crash will be made even more challenging as investigators will be trying to work in the midst of a war zone.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine on Friday, urging the two sides to hold talks as soon as possible.
The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) released purported tapes of intercepted calls of Russian separatist fighters discussing the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. VPC
"Peace in Ukraine must prevail as soon as possible," he said.
Pro-Russian separatists have agreed to give investigators safe access to the crash site and to provide them with assistance, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in statement on its website. The militants have even agreed to "cooperate with the relevant authorities of Ukraine" on questions regarding the crash, the OSCE said.
The whereabouts of the plane's block box flight recorders was not immediately clear although there were reports that rescue workers had recovered one and that another found by separatists was handed over to Moscow, the Interfax news agency reported.
Rescue workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners were searching the area around the crash site for bodies and debris Friday morning.
About 70 coal miners, dressed in overalls and covered with soot, joined the rescue effort near the rebel-held village of Rozsypne in the separatist Donetsk region, about 25 miles from the Russian border.
At least four bodies were seen in the streets of the village, and an Associated Press journalist saw bodies and body parts strewn across a sunflower field outside Rozsypne.
Earlier Friday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called for a "full, thorough and impartial international investigation."
"It's very important that we find out the facts and it's very important that we don't allow Russia to prevent an absolutely comprehensive investigation," Abbott said. "This is not an accident, it's a crime. Let me stress — it's not an accident it's a crime and criminals should not be allowed to be get away with what they've done."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia does not intend to take away the black boxes, Interfax reported Friday.
"We're not going to take these boxes, we are not going to break the rules that exist about such cases in the international community," he said in an interview with news channel Russia 24.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the crash "an act of terrorism' and demanded an international investigation. Ukrainian officials said they had intercepted telephone calls of a separatist leader discussing the crash with Russian military intelligence officers..
But Putin blamed the incident on Ukraine's government, which "carries responsibility for this horrible tragedy."
"We will do everything – everything that depends on us, in any case – to ensure that an objective picture of the events becomes accessible for our public and for the Ukrainian public and the entire world," Putin said.