WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration scrambled Thursday to determine what brought down a passenger jet in Ukraine and confirm whether Americans were killed in an incident that could worsen the already tense conflict near the Ukraine-Russia border.
Vice President Joe Biden said the plane appears to have been shot down — “not an accident, blown out of the sky” — although he cautioned that the U.S. was still seeking details. He said the administration has seen reports that there may have been American citizens aboard the plane.
President Barack Obama, speaking during a trip to Delaware, made no mention of who might be responsible for the crash of the Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 people and called the incident a “terrible tragedy.”
Following the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration said U.S. airlines voluntarily agreed not to operate near the Ukraine-Russia border. The agency said it was monitoring the situation to determine whether further guidance was necessary.
The incident came one day after Obama levied broad economic sanctions on Russia as punishment for its threatening moves in Ukraine. Moscow is widely believed to be supporting pro-Russian separatists fomenting instability near the border, though the Kremlin denies those assertions.
Obama discussed the new sanctions by phone Thursday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House said reports of the downed plane surfaced during that call and Putin mentioned the incident to his American counterpart.
Speaking later during a trip to Delaware, Obama said “the world is watching” the deadly incident.
“It looks like it might be a terrible tragedy,” he said. “Right now we’re working to determine whether there were American citizens on board. That is our first priority.”
White House officials said Obama still planned to go ahead with an evening of fundraising in New York.
Obama said his administration was in close contact with Ukrainian officials and was prepared to assist in determining what caused the crash. Biden spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and said the U.S. was sending a team to Ukraine to help with the investigation.