WASHINGTON (AP) — American intelligence authorities believe a surface-to-air missile took down a passenger jet in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, a U.S. official said, but the Obama administration was still scrambling to confirm who launched the strike and whether there were American citizens killed in the crash.
Vice President Joe Biden said the incident was "not an accident" and described the Malaysia Airlines plane as having been "blown out of the sky."
Among the unanswered questions was whether the missile was launched from the Russian or Ukrainian side of the border they share, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly by name and insisted on anonymity. But the official said U.S. intelligence assessments suggest it is more likely pro-Russian separatists or the Russians rather than Ukrainian government forces shot down the plane.
The U.S. has sophisticated technologies that can detect missile launches, including the identification of heat from a rocket engine.
President Barack Obama, speaking during a trip to Delaware, made no mention of who might be responsible for the crash of the plane carrying 298 people, and called the incident a "terrible tragedy."
Following the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration said U.S. airlines voluntarily agreed not to operate near the Ukraine-Russia border. The agency said it was monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance was necessary.
A global air safety group said an international coalition of countries should lead the investigation of the crash. Safety experts say they're concerned that because the plane crashed in area of Ukraine that is in dispute, political considerations could affect the investigation.
Kenneth Quinn of the Flight Safety Foundation said only "an independent, multinational investigation can truly get to the bottom of it without political interference."
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.