July 17, 2014 at 1:00 am

On Detroit tour, Biden says Ukraine has accepted U.S. help with plane crash

Detroit — Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday he offered the Ukrainian president U.S. assistance in determining the cause of a Malaysian airliner’s crash along the Ukraine-Russia border,but later acknowledged the plane “apparently had been shot down.”

His comment that the crash was “not an accident” and that the plane was “blown out of the sky” came at Cobo Center before delivering a speech to 3,000 Democratic activists from across country. He made the disclosure about the phone call earlier as he began making remarks to a group of information technology students at Wayne County Community College District in Detroit.

Calling it “a grave situation,” Biden said the U.S. government is quickly trying to confirm reports of 23 American citizens who may be among the more than 300 passengers and plane crew believed to have died in the crash.

“Obviously that’s our first concern,” Biden said. “We’re now working every minute to try to confirm those reports as I speak.”

Biden said he was late to both events because he was in contact with the Obama administration’s national security team and the Ukrainian president.

The vice president said he called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and offered U.S. assistance in the aftermath of the “tragic event that’s taken place on the Ukrainian border” with Russia.

“He accepted that help and they’re on their way rapidly to see if we can get to the bottom of this,” Biden said.

At the Netroots Nation conference, Biden alluded to the probability the plane was shot down by a missile.

“It’s important that we get to the bottom of this soon as possible because of the possible repercussions that could follow,” Biden said.

The vice president then pivoted to his conference speech, voicing sympathy for undocumented immigrants who face deportation after entering the country illegally.

Protesters interrupted Biden’s speech by shouting “stop deporting our families.” Some liberals have decried the Obama administration’s enforcement of immigration laws amid a congressional stalemate on the hotly debated issue.

“I respect your view and I share your view,” Biden told the protesters without elaborating.

As security personnel escorted about a dozen protesters out of Cobo’s grand ballroom, the vice president encouraged the crowd to applaud them.

Biden used the interruption in his speech as part of a larger message that President Barack Obama’s agenda is not complete with two-and-a-half years remaining in the administration’s second term.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there’s so much unfinished business,” he said.

Biden’s speech kicked off the four-day gathering.

Benjamin Gamboa of the California School Employees Association said he was impressed with how Biden handled the immigration hecklers.

“He really won over the crowd,” Gamboa said. “I thought he had a rousing speech that speaks to the hearts of progressives’ desires to move our country forward.”

Biden began his speech by reflecting on his push inside the Obama administration to get the president to fully back marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

“I started crying,” said Kathleen Perrin, a bisexual from Los Angeles who is active in tracking gay rights court cases across the country. “To have our vice president acknowledge the power of all of us in the civil rights movement, I was very touched.”

Then the vice president pivoted into his speech by noting improvements in Detroit, which is in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

“It is coming back, it will come back,” he said.

Netroots organizers are planning a march starting at 1 p.m. Friday from Cobo to the Coleman A. Young building in protest of Detroit’s water shutoffs and state-appointed emergency manager.

One participant said Biden should have said more about Detroit’s bankruptcy and state control.

“We were disappointed he wasn’t connected to our local tragedy here,” said Jan BenDor of the Michigan Election Reform Alliance. “How can (Detroit) come back when it’s under a dictator? That’s not how you get democracy back.”

Biden gave a fiery speech defending the administration’s policies.

“The progressive government does and did have a role in the economic well-being of the American people,” Biden said about the more than $800 billion 2009 economic stimulus package that Republicans have attacked as being ineffective.

He also urged the expansion of gay rights.

“No one should ever have the right to dismiss somebody because of their sexual orientation,” Biden said.

The vice president did stumble at one point, urging the “closing (of) loopholes like the earned income tax” — a credit given to low-income earners that Democrats normally support. But he corrected himself and shifted his criticism toward eliminating corporate tax breaks.

“I believe that real job creators are the engineers and the sales people ... not just the investors and shareholders,” he said.

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A man walks, amongst the wreckages of the Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine. / ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY / AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Cobo Center. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)