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World leaders call for probe into crash of airliner

Hrabove, Ukraine

WORLD leaders have demanded an international investigation into the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner with 298 people on board over eastern Ukraine, as Kiev and Moscow blamed each other for a tragedy that stoked tensions between Russia and the West. One US official said Washington strongly suspected the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was downed by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian separatists backed by Moscow.

There were no survivors from Thursday's crash, which left wreckage and bodies scattered across kilometres of rebel-held territory. The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea a month later.

The US called for an immediate ceasefire to allow easy access to the crash site, while pro-Russian separatists told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a security and rights body, they would ensure safe access for international experts visiting the scene.

The plane crashed about 40km from the border with Russia near Donetsk, an area that is a stronghold of rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian government forces. Leaders of the rebel Donetsk People's Republic denied any involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the inter-continental flight.

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Reuters journalists saw burning and charred wreckage bearing the red and blue Malaysia Airlines insignia and dozens of bodies in fields near the village of Hrabove.

US Vice-President Joe Biden said it appeared the downing of the jetliner was not an accident and that it apparently was"blown out of the sky".

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott appeared to go further than other Western leaders in apportioning blame, demanding yesterday that Moscow answer questions about the "Russian-backed rebels" who he said were behind the disaster.

More than 20 Australians were among the many nationalities aboard MH17. The Netherlands was the worst affected, with 154 Dutch citizens on the downed plane.

An emergency worker said at least 100 bodies had been found so far and that debris was spread over 15km. The airline said it was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew.

The loss of MH17 is the second devastating blow for Malaysia Airlines this year, following the mysterious disappearance of Flight MH370 in March, which vanished with 239 passengers and crew on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

In Malaysia, there was a sense of disbelief that another airline disaster could strike so soon.

"If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a pre-dawn news conference in Kuala Lumpur. "This is a tragic day, in what has already been a tragic year, for Malaysia."

Ukraine accused pro-Moscow militants, aided by Russian military intelligence officers, of firing a long-range, Soviet-era SA-11 ground-to-air missile.

Russian President Vladimir Putin - at loggerheads with the West over his policies towards Ukraine - pinned the blame on Kiev for renewing its offensive against rebels two weeks ago after a ceasefire failed to hold. The Kremlin leader called it a "tragedy" but did not say who brought the Boeing 777 down.

US President Barack Obama, who spoke to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as well as other leaders, said evidence from the crash must remain in Ukraine so international investigators have a chance to look at all of it, officials said. The White House said the US was willing to contribute immediate assistance to the investigation, and CNN reported that FBI and National Transportation Safety Board officials would be heading to Ukraine in an advisory role.

The OSCE said in a statement on its website that a "contact group" of senior representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE had held a video conference with the separatists, who pledged to cooperate with Ukrainian authorities in the investigation.

Kiev complained that separatists prevented Ukrainian officials from reaching the site.

Pro-Russian separatists in the region said on Thursday they had found one of the "black box" recorders. Rescue workers recovered a second flight recorder yesterday, a Reuters cameraman on the scene said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called for a transparent international investigation. The UN Security Council was due to discuss the issue yesterday.

The Netherlands declared a day of national mourning for its 154 dead. Twenty-eight passengers were Malaysian, 28 Australian, 12 Indonesian, nine British, four German, four Belgian, three Filipino, and one each was from Canada and New Zealand. All 15 crew were Malaysian. Nationalities of the others aboard were unclear. Reuters

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