By Jeff Mason
NEW YORK (Reuters) - President Barack Obama directed U.S. officials on Thursday to do all they could to support an investigation into what caused a Malaysian jetliner to crash in a Ukraine war zone and pledged support to the affected countries as the probe moves forward.
Obama went ahead with a trip to tout infrastructure investment in Delaware and to raise money for Democrats in New York despite the incident in which 295 people, including reportedly 23 Americans, lost their lives.
Before leaving the White House, Obama held a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the United States on Wednesday imposed the most wide-ranging sanctions yet on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.
During the call, which came at Moscow's request, Putin informed Obama about the downed plane.
“I can confirm that President Putin near the end of this morning's phone call with President Obama noted the early reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Ukraine and Russia traded accusations of blame over the incident, cranking up global pressure for a way out of a bloody local conflict that risks fueling a new Cold War.
Obama made brief remarks about the plane at the beginning of a speech about roads and bridges in Wilmington, Delaware.
"It looks like it may be a terrible tragedy," he said. "I’ve directed my national security team to stay in close contact with the Ukrainian government. The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why."
Vice President Joe Biden said it appeared that the downing of the jetliner near the Ukraine-Russia border was not an accident and that the passenger jet apparently was "blown out of the sky."
"This is truly a grave situation," he said during a speech in Detroit. The two leaders said the United States was working to confirm reports that Americans had been on board.
Both Obama and Biden spoke on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, offering assistance to help determine what happened to the downed Boeing 777.
Obama and his Ukrainian counterpart emphasized that evidence from the crash must remain in Ukraine so that international investigators had a chance to look at all of it.
Obama also called Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to express condolences and offer U.S. support.
ADDS UNPREDICTABLE ELEMENT
The crash injected an unpredictable element into the increasingly violent confrontation between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Republican lawmakers, who have called for tough U.S. action against Moscow over Ukraine, quickly called for retaliation against Russia if it were found to have been involved in the crash.
"I believe there should be serious consequences if we find out that it was either Russian agents, Russian equipment or Russians directly that was responsible for the downing of this airliner," New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said in a speech in the U.S. Senate.
Obama, determined not to appear to be a hostage of world events, continued with his trip after warning Putin that the United States could impose more sanctions on Russia if Moscow did not take steps to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.
The new round of U.S. sanctions against Russia included penalties against Russia's largest oil producer, Rosneft and other energy, financial and defense firms.
In Wilmington, Obama ate a hamburger with a supporter at a diner after shaking hands and hugging children in the restaurant.
In New York, he attended Democratic fundraisers that were not open to the press.
Seeking to show that Obama was on top of the crisis despite his travel, the White House said he convened separate calls with Secretary of State John Kerry and senior members of his national security team, including CIA Director John Brennan, after Air Force One arrived in New York.
"The president was briefed on our ongoing efforts to support the Ukrainian government and a prompt international investigation into what took place," the White House said.
"The president directed his national security team to continue offering whatever assistance is necessary to advance the international effort to determine what happened."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)