Missile Likely Shot Down Malaysia Airlines Jet

A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 298 passengers and crew aboard crashed in eastern Ukraine, an area wracked by separatist insurgents. David Greene talks to Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's turn now to a grisly scene in the eastern part of Ukraine. A Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 298 people was shot down yesterday. No survivors have been found. American officials are saying an antiaircraft missile hit the plane. This is the second tragedy for Malaysia Airlines this year. You might remember one of their planes bound for Beijing disappeared in March, and it hasn't been found.

This crash in Ukraine comes at the center of a conflict. The plane came down in an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists who are fighting Ukraine's government. We reached Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times by Skype. She spent all night at the crash site in Eastern Ukraine. And we do want to warn you, some of the details you're about to hear are graphic.

SABRINA TAVERNISE: So we arrived around 8:00 p.m. last night, and it's - it was - you know, I don't even really know how to describe it. It was something I'd never seen before in my life. I mean, it was a vast expanse of fields, agricultural areas, wheat on one side, and grasses on the other. And as far as the eye could see, quite literally, there were bodies in the grasses. And we just went from person to person, and took down their descriptions. And it's very difficult to describe to you what it looked like. Rescue workers were tying little white pieces of thread and string to the areas where they had seen bodies, marking the spots. I mean, they were largely intact. Many of them were still buckled to their seatbelts. They were in unnatural poses - kind of waxy. The plane had been full of fuel so there was a lot of fire. It was such a tragedy, you know? There was a lot of children. We were just going through more of the site this morning as the sun came up, and there were there - there was a little girl, probably no more than three, wearing a red T-shirt, no pants. Many of them had their clothing ripped off. And then, many of the villagers we spoke to - there was a village, really, quite literally just next to the crash site, I mean, the plane almost went down in the village.

GREENE: What'd they tell you?

TAVERNISE: So they described seeing this thing come down. I mean, it was pieces of luggage, suitcases falling from the sky, bodies, that some of them described looking like pieces of cloth. Other people described looking like pieces of ash. There were many, many different theories as to why this had happened, and who is responsible, in the village. It's a very pro-Russian area.

GREENE: And of course there are accusations that either pro-Russian separatists or maybe even the Russian government, actually, brought this plane down. What did these villagers say about all of that?

TAVERNISE: The villagers who very much support the rebels say that that's ridiculous. The rebels are, you know, poor people who are coal miners who have nothing more than the clothes on their back, and very old weapons. And they just don't believe that they would ever have had the capability to shoot down something that far up in the sky. We did talk to two people in the village who were very afraid - largely because this is an extremely unpopular position to take - but they said that they thought that they had heard missiles. A 15-year-old boy who'd been swimming in a river, and he said he had - he saw what kind of looked like the flash from a rocket going up. And a man who'd been in his garden nearby said the same.

GREENE: You're saying this is an unpopular position to take because in this pro-Russian area, it would be suggesting that a missile might've been fired by some of these separatists.

TAVERNISE: Correct. For the most part, the vast majority were absolutely sure that the Ukrainian Air Force - which has been bombing the area quite heavily over the past couple of weeks - was responsible for shooting down the plane.

GREENE: And the rescue workers, Sabrina, does that help you understand who's in charge here?

TAVERNISE: You know, it was very interesting, because I came to the conclusion that actually no one was in charge. There was a large throng of rescue workers probably for the better part of nearly two hours, sort of waiting on the road as if they were waiting for someone to give them orders. But as we were leaving the scene, there was sort of a motley team of both rebels in fatigues, as well as people in blue Ukrainian emergency ministry uniforms pacing the fields, and searching, and marking the places where the bodies had fallen.

GREENE: All right. We've been hearing from the New York Times' Sabrina Tavernise who is in Eastern Ukraine, in an area where a Malaysia Airlines plane went down yesterday. Sabrina, thanks very much.

TAVERNISE: Thank you.

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