July 17, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Obama: Downed jet in Ukraine a 'terrible tragedy'

Washington — The Obama administration scrambled Thursday to determine what brought down a passenger jet in Ukraine and whether any Americans were killed in an incident that could worsen the already tense conflict near the Ukraine-Russia border.

President Barack Obama made no mention of who might be responsible for the crash of the Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 people, but said the incident appeared to be a “terrible tragedy.”

The incident came one day after Obama levied broad economic sanctions on Russia as punishment for its threatening moves in Ukraine. Moscow is widely believed to be supporting pro-Russian separatists fomenting instability near the border, though the Kremlin denies those assertions.

Obama discussed the new sanctions by phone Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House said reports of the downed plane surfaced during that call and Putin mentioned the incident to his American counterpart.

Speaking later during a trip to Delaware, Obama said “the world is watching” the deadly incident.

“It looks like it might be a terrible tragedy,” he said. “Right now we’re working to determine whether there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority.”

Obama said his administration was in close contact with Ukrainian officials and was prepared to assist in determining what caused the crash. Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has called the downing of the plane an act of terrorism.

“Vice President Biden, who is traveling in Detroit today, just got off the phone with President Poroshenko. On the call, the vice president offered U.S. assistance to help to determine what happened and why,” a White House official said, according to a pool report.

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.

U.S. officials said they were still seeking to determine how the plane was brought down and by whom. Their cautious approach underscored the potential for the incident to escalate the already fraught dispute between Russia and Ukraine.

Officials did day Russia has sent a wide range of heavy weaponry into eastern Ukraine in recent months, although it is uncertain whether that includes the Buk air defense system, which is operated by a tracked vehicle. The U.S. suspects that Russian shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons have been provided to the separatists.

According to a Ukrainian state-owned import-export firm that specializes in military technology and weaponry, known as Ukroboronservice, the Ukrainian military operates the Buk-M1 system, which is designated by NATO as the SA-11 Gadfly. It is designed to shoot down military aircraft, including helicopters, as well as cruise missiles.

The Russians also are believed by U.S. officials to have provided the separatists in eastern Ukraine with other heavy weaponry such as artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, tanks and armored personnel carriers.

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.

People walk amongst the debris at the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, Thursday. / Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
President Barack Obama speaks at the Port of Wilmington in Wilmington, ... (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)