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Gunmen block air crash site as Obama condemns Russia

A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on July 18, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

HRABOVE, Ukraine — President Barack Obama demanded Russia stop supporting separatists in Ukraine after the downing of a Malaysian airliner by a surface-to-air missile he said was fired from rebel territory raised the prospect of more sanctions on Moscow.

Calling the deaths of almost 300 people from 11 countries “an outrage of unspeakable proportions,” Obama stopped short of directly blaming Russia for the incident, saying there must be a rapid and credible investigation. “We don’t have time for games,” he said.

International observers said gunmen stopped them observing the site properly when they got there on Friday.

More than half of the victims were Dutch, and Obama said a U.S. citizen was among the dead in what has become a pivotal incident in deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.

Obama pledged a full investigation and said evidence indicated the plane was downed by a surface-to-air missile fired from a region controlled by Russia-backed separatists. The U.S. representative at the United Nations, Ambassador Samantha Power, went further, hinting that Russian technicians might even have played a role in the launch.

But the probe into the crash is likely to take a year or more, experts said, and it faces many challenges. And until its conclusions are known, it’s unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the deaths of the 298 people on board.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the FBI plan to send investigators to Ukraine, but the obstacles are legion: Finding pieces of the missile could prove difficult, the plane’s wreckage may be hard to access, and the location of the black box recorder, often crucial to learning about crashes, was unclear. Some experts questioned whether once located it would provide any useful information.

A military aircraft would have the capability of recording information from a missile attack, but the black box on a civilian jet would only have monitored which systems failed in the few seconds after the warhead detonated.

“The only thing they’re going to hear on the black box is a boom,” said John Goglia, an aviation safety consultant and former member of the NTSB who was the first certified aircraft mechanic on the board.

There were no survivors from the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, a Boeing 777. The United Nations said 80 of the 298 aboard were children. The deadliest attack on a commercial airliner, it scattered bodies over miles of rebel-held territory near the border with Russia.

Makeshift white flags marked where bodies lay in corn fields and among the debris. Others, stripped bare by the force of the crash, had been covered by polythene sheeting weighed down by stones, one marked with a flower in remembrance.

One pensioner told how a woman smashed though her roof. “There was a howling noise and everything started to rattle. Then objects started falling out of the sky,” said Irina Tipunova, 65. “And then I heard a roar and she landed in the kitchen.”

Investigation hampered As U.S. investigators prepared to head to Ukraine to assist in the investigation, staff from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe security body visited the site but complained that they did not have the full access they wanted.

“We encountered armed personnel who acted in a very impolite and unprofessional manner. Some of them even looked slightly intoxicated,” an OSCE spokesman said.

The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula a month later.

“This outrageous event underscores that it is time for peace and security to be restored in Ukraine,” Obama said, adding that Russia had failed to use its influence to curb rebel violence.

While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the United States has been more aggressive than the European Union. Analysts say the response of Germany and other EU powers to the incident — possibly imposing more sanctions — could be crucial in deciding the next phase of the standoff with Moscow.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was too early to decide on further sanctions before it was known exactly what had happened to the plane. Britain took a similar line, but later echoed Obama in pointing the finger at the separatists.

Crash site The plane crashed about 25 miles from the border with Russia near the regional capital of Donetsk, an area that is a stronghold of rebels who have been fighting Ukrainian government forces and have brought down military aircraft.

Leaders of the rebels’ self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic denied any involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the intercontinental flight.

The self-proclaimed prime minister of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, said 17 representatives from the OSCE and four Ukrainian experts had traveled into rebel-controlled areas to begin an investigation. They were allowed to look at part of the crash site but were refused access to the area where the engines wound up.

The Ukrainian government released recordings it said were of Russian intelligence officers discussing the shooting down of a civilian airliner by rebels who may have mistaken it for a Ukrainian military plane.

After the downing of several Ukrainian military aircraft in the area in recent months, including two earlier this week, Kiev had accused Russian forces of playing a direct role.

Separatists were quoted in Russian media last month saying they had acquired a long-range SA-11 anti-aircraft system.

Malaysia Airlines released a new accounting of who had been aboard the flight by nationality. The Dutch bore the highest cost: 189 victims, followed by Malaysia, with 44, and Australia, with 27. There were also 12 Indonesians, nine Britons, four Belgians, four Germans and three Filipinos.

Canada, New Zealand and the United States each had one citizen aboard.

The White House identified the lone holder of U.S. citizenship as Quinn Lucas Schansman, a dual Dutch-American citizen, whose death the airline might also have counted among the Dutch. Malaysia Airlines said the citizenship of four victims still had not been determined.

Karlijn Keijzer, 25, a doctoral student in chemistry at Indiana University and an avid rower who once competed on the women’s varsity rowing team there, was among the dead. Keijzer, who was from the Netherlands, also earned her master’s degree at Indiana.

A number of those on board were traveling to an international AIDS conference in Melbourne, including Joep Lange, an influential Dutch expert.

“We lost somebody who wanted to make the world a better place,” said his friend Marcel Duyvestijn.

McClatchy Newspapers and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.