298 Dead After Airliner Crash in Eastern Ukraine

alaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (C), Malaysian Defence Minister Hishamuddin Hussein (L) and Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman (R) pause during a press conference at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur International airport (KLIA) outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 May 2014.

By John Grafilo and Nikolaus von Twickel

KUALA LUMPUR/KIEV (DPA) —  The Malaysia Airlines jetliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine with 298 people aboard made no distress call, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Friday, adding to suspicions that the plane was shot down.

Najib offered condolences to the families and friends of those aboard flight MH 017, which was bound for Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, and vowed that "no stone will be left unturned" in the investigation of the disaster.

US Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday the downing of the aircraft was "not an accident," characterizing it as being "blown out of the sky," US media reported.

Relatives of people aboard the plane, who were from at least nine countries, gathered at Kuala Lumpur airport hoping for news about the disaster.

"We must – and we will – find out precisely what happened to this flight. If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice," Najib said.

Both the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine denied shooting down the Boeing 777-200.

The crash could mark a dramatic turning point in the conflict, which erupted after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March.

Video and photos posted online showed a cloud of black smoke rising from the wreckage of a plane in a field believed to be near the city of Shakhtarsk between the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and the Russian border.

Hours after the crash, the rebels offered a three-day ceasefire to allow an investigation and rescue operations.

The crash follows the March 8 disappearance of another Malaysia Airlines plane, carrying 239 people bound for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.

"This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia," Najib said Friday.

Malaysia Airlines said there were 283 passengers and 15 crew aboard. The confirmed passengers included 154 Dutch, 28 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 9 Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos and one from Canada. The nationalities of 41 passengers were still being determined. The crew were all Malaysians.

Pro-Russian separatists promised to give recovery workers and investigators safe access to the crash site, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said.

Rebels said they had found the plane's flight recorder, which they would hand over to Russia.

US President Barack Obama offered "immediate assistance to support a prompt, full, credible and unimpeded international investigation" and demanded that all evidence "must remain in place on the territory of Ukraine" for the inquiry.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton led calls by world leaders for an international investigation into the crash.

Ukraine's security service said it had intercepted a phone call in which pro-Russian rebel commanders – allegedly part of separatist forces fighting the Kiev government – claimed to have downed a civilian airliner.

In the purported phone call, heard in an unverified posting on YouTube, one of the commanders claims in Russian that the aircraft was shot down from a checkpoint in Chernukhin, a rebel-held eastern Ukrainian town less than 20 kilometers from the crash site.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine, saying in a Kremlin meeting broadcast on state television that the crash "would not have happened if there was peace and no fresh hostilities" in eastern Ukraine.

"Undoubtedly, the state on whose territory this happened is responsible for this terrible tragedy," he said.

Putin offered "deep condolences" to Najib.

Obama and Putin discussed the crash Thursday during a phone call that was meant to focus on new US sanctions against Russia over its backing of the eastern Ukraine separatists.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the crash "neither an incident nor a disaster, but a terrorist act" by separatists, spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko said.

Poroshenko alleged that the crash follows this week's downing of two Ukrainian planes from Russian territory.

Separatist leaders and experts shown on Russian state TV blamed the Ukrainian army, arguing that only it had the means and the staff to shoot down a liner at cruising height.

Alexander Borodai, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told the Interfax news agency that the Malaysian Airlines crash was "nothing else but a provocation of the Ukrainian military."

Ukrainian Interior Ministry official Anton Gerashchenko alleged that the plane was downed using a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile system supplied to the rebels by the Kremlin.

Shortly before the crash, rebels reported they had downed a Ukrainian government transport plane in the area.

The European air traffic agency advised pilots worldwide to avoid the area where the jet went down and rerouted planes already in the air.