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U.S. joins worldwide demands for immediate investigation of plane crash in rebel-held region

July 18, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The air disaster in Ukraine sparked worldwide condemnation today and fresh claims and counter-claims over who shot down the plane.

President Obama called it an outrage of unspeakable proportions, as questions arose over how the crash site is being overseen.

A warning: Parts of this story may be disturbing to some viewers.

Across fields of wheat and rows of sunflowers, emergency workers and others combed the widespread crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Many carried sticks with white flags to mark the locations of victims. The Boeing 777 had been flying from the Netherlands to Malaysia when it was hit by a missile over Eastern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border.

Today, local people recalled moments of horror on the ground.

MAN (through interpreter): It was about 5:00 p.m. There was a very strong plane rumble. Then there was a sort of explosion or flap, and then people started falling from the sky. People were appearing right from the clouds. Then the plane’s fuselage appeared and landed there 50 meters away from here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of the 298 passengers and crew, more than half were Dutch. The rest came from at least 10 other nations, including one American.

By day’s end, more than 180 bodies had been counted. But the area, held by pro-Russian rebels, remained far from secure. Some people were seen taking pieces of wreckage as souvenirs, while European monitors said they were blocked from gaining access to the site.

There was also confusion over the plane’s black box recorders. Some reports said rebels had found them, while one separatist leader denied it. Meanwhile, charges and countercharges flew over who shot down the plane. Ukraine’s government released recordings of what it said were phone calls between rebels and a Russian intelligence officer.

In it, one rebel says: “We have just shot down a plane.”

Later, another voice says: “It was 100 percent a passenger aircraft.”

The head of Ukraine’s security service said that there’s more evidence in the form of other intercepted conversations.

VALENTYN NALYVAICHENKO, Head, Ukrainian Security Service (through interpreter): Two things have been ascertained. The first is that we showed a place on the border where a heavy missile launcher crossed into the territory of Ukraine before the attack. And terrorists clearly confirmed that the crew entered from the territory of Russia and were Russian servicemen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ukraine’s Interior Ministry also released a video it said showed the missile launcher used in yesterday’s attack. Officials said it was spotted yesterday with one of its four missiles missing.

Still, rebels and Russian officials denied any direct role in the catastrophe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): Regarding the claims from Kiev that we allegedly did it ourselves, you know, I have not heard a truthful statement from Kiev for months.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And the eyes of the world are on Eastern Ukraine, and we are going to make sure that the truth is out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the White House, President Obama joined worldwide demands for what he called a credible international investigation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In order to facilitate that investigation, Russia, pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine must adhere to an immediate cease-fire. Evidence must not be tampered with. Investigators need to access the crash site. And the solemn task of returning those who were lost on board the plane to their loved ones needs to go forward immediately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president said teams from the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board are on their way to Ukraine. And he strongly suggested Russia bears at least partial blame for supplying the rebels with sophisticated weapons and the people or training to use them.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are only certain types of anti-aircraft missiles that can reach up 30,000 feet and shoot down a passenger jet. If Mr. Putin makes a decision that we are not going to allow heavy armaments and the flow of fighters into Ukraine across the Ukrainian-Russian border, then it will stop.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Moscow, President Putin didn’t address the issue of whether Russia has given surface-to-air missiles to the rebels. Instead, he again put the blame on the Ukrainian government.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): This tragedy wouldn’t have happened if there was peace in that land, if the fighting had not been restarted in the southeast of Ukraine. And, of course, the state on whose territory this happened carries the responsibility for this terrible tragedy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Russian leader did agree with the call for an immediate cease-fire. The U.S. and Russia also skirmished at the United Nations, where the Security Council pressed for an investigation without delay, and ambassadors traded verbal volleys.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the UN: If indeed Russian-backed separatists were behind this attack on a civilian airliner, they and their backers would have good reason to cover up evidence of their crime. Thus, it is extremely important that an investigation be commenced immediately.

VITALY CHURKIN, UN Ambassador, Russia (through interpreter): There is a need for an impartial, open investigation of what happened. Pressure shouldn’t be brought to bear on this investigation by trying to prejudge ITS outcome with broad statements and insinuations that aren’t justified.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The disaster drew special attention in the world’s AIDS community because scores of passengers on the plane were researchers and activists en route to a conference in Australia. They included the former head of the International AIDS Society and a spokesman for the World Health Organization.

CLIVE ASPIN, AIDS researcher: People have been devastated. This is just a terrible, terrible blow to the whole HIV movement.

TREVOR STRATTON, AIDS advocate: What if the cure for AIDS was on that plane? Really, we don’t know. There’re some very prominent researchers that have been doing this for a very long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mourners around the world today honored the memories of all the victims. Many left flowers at the Dutch Embassy in Kiev. Similar memorials were erected outside the Dutch and Malaysian embassies in Moscow.