By Justin Sink - 07/17/14 11:17 PM EDT
The White House called for an immediate cease-fire in eastern Ukraine to allow international investigators access to the crash site of a downed Malaysia Airlines plane late Thursday night.
And for the first time, the administration suggested a link between the crash and pro-Russian militants operating in the area, noting the incident “occurred in the context of a crisis in Ukraine that is fueled by Russian support for the separatists.”
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed Thursday morning in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, killing all 298 individuals on board. The Boeing 777 aircraft was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and initial intelligence suggests it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from the separatist-controlled region.
The White House said that it was “vital that no evidence be tampered with in any way and that all potential evidence and remains at the crash site are undisturbed.”
A senior administration official said the focus of U.S. efforts at this point was preparing to support an international effort to find out what happened. Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board and FBI are involved in that work, the official said.
Earnest stressed that the U.S. did “not yet have all the facts” but made the strongest suggestion yet that the administration believed Russian-backed separatists might have been responsible. He noted that Moscow had supported the rebels with “arms, materiel, and training.”
“This incident only highlights the urgency with which we continue to urge Russia to immediately take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine and to support a sustainable cease-fire and path toward peace that the Ukrainian government has consistently put forward,” Earnest said.
On Friday, the president will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in the Oval Office. Both Lew and Kerry have been central players in the U.S. effort to sanction Russia for its role in backing the Ukrainian separatists.
While traveling to New York City for a pair of events benefiting Democratic candidates, the president discussed the situation with Kerry and his national security team by phone.
Still unclear is whether any Americans were killed in the incident, although Kerry said in a statement Thursday that the State Department was “reviewing whether any American citizens were aboard the flight.”
“The United States Government remains prepared to assist with a credible, international investigation any way we can, and we will continue to be in touch with all relevant partners as we seek the facts of what happened today,” Kerry said.